Architecture for Participatory Knowing

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Architecture for Participatory Knowing

My thesis, the thing you are reading now, is an entity that is different than the traditional thesis. It does embody a semester of personal research, and it does make assumptions and claims. However, there is a level of proof that this thesis is intentionally missing. This thesis is purposefully speculative, not finished. And I hope it never will be. And because of this optimistic lack of finality, my posed claims will not be resolved today.

Architecture for Participatory Knowing is a Web application that will allow for contributions, much like blogs and wiki-sites do now. In technical terms, Architecture for Participatory Knowing is the graphic user interface of a PHP-coded architecture that will allow for dynamic editing. Architecture for Participatory Knowing is different from a traditional thesis because it will not only allow the thesis to continue to live as a work in progress, it will also allow the thesis to sit among other like-minded theses. A traditional thesis makes salient points, but is not a living document. The traditional documentation of knowledge in static form is limiting and, even after a history of theoretical grounding for its liberation, the document is still static. By opening up this thesis as a piece of a system devoted to participatory authoring, I hope to illustrate the idea that a completely collaborative artifact can allow us to rethink what it means to participate, and what thereby affects the outcome. It is the purpose of this project to speculate what an artifact that physically shows the process of collaborative authoring can be.

"We are now entering the participation age…the really interesting thing about the network today is that individuals are starting to participate. The endpoints are starting to inform the center."

Jonathan I. Schwartz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sun Microsystems

The above quote from the New York Times article “Web Content by and for the Masses,” foresees the new participatory opportunities offered by the Internet. The audience, no longer mere consumers, now has authoring power over the product. This is a process that begins to make real the proposition that meaning can be created collaboratively. Participation happens when we read, or view, because a work is incomplete without reception. My thesis remains invisible inside me until I share it with someone. The series of pixels that hold my “thesis.doc” together fail to make meaning until they are shared with the viewer’s eyes. Concurrently, the idea of reception is equally as complicated as the physics of light waves bouncing around our optic nerves. Reception is not passive acknowledgment. Reception mixes seeing with the entire contextual package, emotions, environments, and the rest of our subjective entailments. We translate what we see into our own words and socially construct meaning. I think that it is possible to “have the ends inform the center,” as Jonathan I. Schwartz says, because we live in a world of socially constructed truth, and the discerning of information is participatory. The audience does have an active role in authoring, but the “participation age” calls for an examination of what kind of participation is actually happening. The Architecture for Participatory Knowing project is my attempt to question the nature of both the “ends” and the “center.”

Participatory Knowing

“Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”

Roland Barthes, from “The Death of an Author”

This now infamous quote from Roland Barthes argues for the necessity of the viewers’ interpretation and the breakdown of the notion of the singular “Truth.” The fact that a “text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ message” frees both the author and the audience, because neither are solely responsible for bearing that weight. The inability of the author to create a completely didactic message is not however a harbinger of death, but a realization that the transmission of information is a collaborative process. The text elicits an audience’s re-creation, and facilitates their participation in the construction of meaning. This does not have to be an argument for the removal of the author’s voice, because both author and audience are integral parts of the process.

Jurgen Habermas, as part of his work in hermeneutics, also believed that interpretation requires not just the transmission of a message from the sender to the audience, but the mutual recognition of what is being communicated. Habermas’ theory of interpretation helps us understand that the social construction of meaning is not purely subjective and does not imply absolute-relativism. In terms of the author/audience relation, this argues for the necessity of the author’s intention, even if it ultimately relies on re-interpretation. The process of communication in the “public sphere” involves the rational debating public. The audience does synthesize and perpetuate an idea in a way that the author could not do alone, but socially created knowledge must involve both the original and the re-interpretation. “Text itself simply offers ‘schematized aspects’ through which the subject matter of the work can be produced, while the actual production takes place through an act of concretization.” The process of interpretation is a process of creation, or as Janet Wolf, in The Social Production of Art, writes, “Hermeneutics accepts that textual meaning is always re-created by new readers.” This process of creation encompasses all exchanges of information, not just texts. For Habermas, communication is seen as a function of the “public sphere,” open to all citizens where meanings are created in and through the process of communication. Participatory and collective knowing creates the outcome, which is the consensus. Socially created truth implies that there is a goal; a goal created with multiple voices. It is the fact that participation can lead to something unattainable without it, that gives participation potentiality. This does not imply that participatory knowing gets us closer to a singular “Truth,” because interpretive theories don’t “provide a sociology of meanings.” Participation is a process of creating the socially constructed truth, and we exist in this realm of socially created meanings. This doesn’t mean that all artifacts created through participation are inherently problem-free. We must retain an understanding of the context in order to place value on the collectively made thing, like the consensus as the outcome of communication in the “public sphere.” A level of rational normativeness is needed to make public debate fruitful. The user’s contexts become added to the collaborative meaning while retaining a relation to the author’s original intent.

I believe that collaborative knowing, like cooperative acts of making, must be done within a context to protect them from being co-opted. Cooperative subjectivity, a concept introduced by Marx, states that a group of workers acting together in the same interest have greater power than an individual working alone. Unions are an example of cooperative subjectivity because they unite a group of people, or workers, for a common goal--–such as shortening the workday. Cooperative subjectivity, however, also refers to the groups of people working collaboratively to create products that would not necessarily benefit them. For instance, the shortening of the workday ultimately led to the necessity to do more work in a shorter period of time. For Marx this is a question of ownership, “a product becomes a real product only by being consumed. For example, a garment becomes a real garment only in the act of being worn; a house where no one lives is in fact not a real house.” Here consumption completes production because consumption ends in ownership. The two are symbiotic, like the author/audience relationship in Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” The workers, fighting for a shorter workday, do not own what they are creating. If they had ownership over the thing being produced the value would be in the act of cooperation. They would share ownership of an artifact that is greater than they could have made individually. This process would be even more apparent in the artifact that retained the history of every user. As defined by Stewart Home, plagiarism implies a history of use and can lead to progressive social change. As a method of social creation, plagiarism is not stealing, but a means of recording multiple voices. Plagiarism, in this sense, is a process where the users add their mark, creating a new artifact that builds on the author’s original intent and continuing participation. When participation is the goal, the “product” is incomplete without consumption. Here, plagiarism is not an act of appropriation, but a way of creating social ownership. The ownership of a socially created artifact is shared, and participation is needed to make it grow.

Eduardo Kac is an artist who writes about making socially created knowledge more tangible, and I believe this could answer questions about ownership and absolute relativism. Kac is inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “dialog.” Mikhail Bakhtin talks about the continual dialog that happens either within us, as if reading a novel, or through conversation. Dialogic materials are ever-changing based on the relationship between audience and audiences’ mutable conscience. Bakhtin uses the term “monologic” to describe the one-sided artifact, which is a presentation of an author’s knowing as an objective fact. The dialogic piece, in contrast, does not have a single meaning. Kac is interested in making what he calls “multilogic interactions,” or artwork that is a literal dialogic experience. He has in mind pieces that are physically created by the participation of the audience. The viewer not only participates in the social creation of meaning by progressing the understanding in a larger theoretical dialog. They actually create physical changes to the artifact being consumed, linking consumption and creation. The viewer’s mark of participation is documented in the object giving all participants a claim of ownership. This is the culmination of the social creation of meaning and a visible social ownership that, I believe, the participation age could beckon.


The Internet itself is a collaboratively made network, and literally mutable artifacts are starting to be created on the Web. Dynamic Web applications allow for users to shape content, but the dynamic Web page can still be a very static document, which does not let the “ends inform the center,” any more than a book does.

Wikipedia is one such Web application. Wikipedia defines itself as “a multilingual Web-based free-content encyclopedia wiki service.” It is an encyclopedia that is open for editing by anyone with access to a Web browser and an Internet connection. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers, and allows most articles to be changed by anyone (with access to a Web browser). Wikipedia has more than 3,380,000 articles, including more that 983,000 in the English-language version, and as of February 2006 has more than 960,000 registered users. ” Daniel Pink, in a Wired article entitled “The Book Stops Here,” describes the wiki-philosophy. “Wikipedia represents a belief in the supremacy of reason and the goodness of others. In the Wikipedia ideal, people of goodwill sometimes clash because of opposing viewpoints and with the combined wisdom of many, something resembling the truth will emerge. Most of the time.” This is very similar to Habermas’ definition of the “public sphere,” where a greater good is obtained from cooperative debates. As says, “You can help build Wikipedia into a better encyclopedia and wiki community by editing and creating new articles.”

Although Wikipedia relies on the massive collaboration of its volunteers and echoes many theoretical suppositions, it is not the truly dialogic artifact that it could be. Wikipedia is a very large, collaboratively created document and the fact that anyone with access to a Web browser can edit it makes it seemingly dialogic. But Wikipedia presents this collaboration in a “monologic” way, not identifying the voices of its contributors. Anyone can edit, but all edits become part of a single text, without distinctions. Wikipedia presents all information as equal and without direct connection to its “authors.” Volunteers effectively give up identification through participation. Wikipedia hides the personas and the intention of its collaborators, making it a relativist collection of “monologic” entries. This undermines both Wikipedia’s credibility and the potentiality that could come from harnessing such a large group of participators.

Open-source software is an example of how a greater number of authors can collectively improve an artifact they ultimately have ownership of. Open-source software is software whose source code is made available for free use and editing. This works by opening up the original code to the hands of new authors. Apache, an open-source Web server, is one example of open-source shareware. When an individual edits the code and improves the program, that change is added to the program as a whole. However, unlike Wikipedia, not all edits are accepted. As John Swainson, chairman of Computer Associates at IBM, explains the process, “[Today] anybody can download the Apache code. The only obligation is that they acknowledge the site, and if they make changes that they share them back. There is an Apache development process that manages traffic, and you earn your way into that process.” As this process continues the program grows and becomes more efficient, working better and better. This process, as exemplified by Apache, eventually grows into an application that surpasses in quality other programs on the market; IBM uses Apache. Unlike Wikipedia, the Apache community only accepts certain additions. When IBM started using Apache as their Web server, the compensation that Apache required was not money, but input on the program from IBM’s top engineers. Apache is a participatory way of making that can expand the ability of an author by imposing a system of checks and balances. This does not just exclude authors but is used to acknowledge the author’s contributions. “Open source” refers to software, but it also refers to a method for developing software and a philosophy of how to maintain public good. The programs are created by gathering feedback from the hundreds of users. Apache only incorporates participation that improves it. Value lies in the act of participation, because it is being improved. This is not an argument for limiting authors, however. I am not concerned with the fact that Wikipedia is lacking in experts. What I think is important is that Apache acknowledges the participators, and presents itself as a collaborative effort between them. It offers the chance for contributors to become experts.

The “participation age” as heralded by Schwartz is the ability of people to create the architecture of the center, not just content. This means ownership must happen. But this cannot happen in an absolute-relativistic world. Like Habermas’ “public sphere,” an outcome must be reached, and this outcome can be dialogic. Architecture for Participatory Knowing claims that artifacts created through participation and subject to participatory authoring could become living documents of that process. This ultimately creates production through consumption, and requires a new sense of ownership. According to proponents of intellectual property restrictions, copyright laws are necessary to maintain a stream of new ideas, because they protect makers from having their ideas used without permission. The justification for the copyright system paradoxically argues that in order to maintain the creation of innovative ideas, creative writing, blockbuster movies, etc…we must restrict the use of these artifacts. Architecture for Participatory Knowing would be stopped by these restrictions. Copyright restricts the use of intellectual products adhering to the belief that this will increase production, but this potentially slows the process of inspiration by could-be-authors by restricting the potentiality for re-use, interpretation, and creation.

The idea that more authors create more opportunities is inherent in the “copyleft” form of the copyright license. As explained by Lawrence Lessig in the book Free Culture, “copyleft” is a license that requires the licensee to adopt the same terms on any derivative work.” Meaning is already created socially, and “copyleft” licenses allow this to happen legally. The goal and value of the “copyleft” license is that the newly created artifact becomes means for more production. “Copyleft” inspires the possibility of creating an artifact that is not only theoretically, but also legally, open for participatory authoring and ownership.

Architecture for Participatory Knowing

Could there ever be a text that is completely mutable, allowing for dynamic changes while retaining a trace of social authorship? The idea of turning consumption into production may be idealistic but it is not a new idea. A Hacker Manifesto defines hacking, or “the hack,” as undoing the process of consuming. “The hack” frees the product from being an end, or static property. “The hack turns repetition into difference, representation into expression, communication into information. Property turns difference into repetition, freezing free production and distributing it as representation.” If an artifact could become a living document of use it would change the definition of what is considered property, because it would be a record of multiple owners. It would make apparent the participatory authorship ownership. As John Locke explains in his Two Treatises of Civil Government, “As much as any one can make use to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in.” In other words, we take something and add our labor, making it our property. If a collectively authored mutable artifact is a record of participation, the value would be in the shared ownership that creates the artifact. It would not only build off of socially created meaning but would be a continually changing representation of it. I believe this would create a group of participants who would share ownership through contributing. Reed’s law explains how groups can form over shared authorship by linking computer networks and social networks. When a network is aimed at broadcasting something of value to individuals, like a television network, the value of services is linear. When the network enables transactions between the individual nodes, the value is squared. When the same network includes ways for individuals to form groups, the value is exponential.

Developing a system for a community of participation is one of the parameters of this project. Architecture of Participatory Knowing is a speculation on what a literally dialogic Web application could be. One that, I feel, gives the “ends” a more empowering control over the “center.” This project addresses aspects of social authoring on the Web. Here, I will explain how each aspect works together to create an opportunity for fruitful social authoring.

Architecture for Participatory Knowing is started with the posting a single document, this document serves as the nexus for all other contributions. Author, title, and date contributed designate each contribution, which are placed dynamically, by the user, on the page. All contributions, including other theses are placed in proximity and linked to a previously entered text. This creates spatial collections of contributions that differ from the normal search-and-find approach used by sites like Wikipedia. Because participation relies on the building of contextual ideas, having all information visible is very important. Allowing all contributions to sit in relation to others makes visible a history of participation. The project works to create a continually changing representation of socially created meaning. Not only can users expand the text of the thesis, they can dynamically place that text anywhere in the document. While traditional blogs list contributions separately, Architecture of Participatory Knowing integrates contributions into the original document. Creating a completely new artifact. Architecture of Participatory Knowing also links user edits with the user’s personal information, retaining a distinction of parts within the newly created whole. The user must be allowed to enter relevant biographic information, which could include education, biography, and links to other Internet presences. Personal information is connected to all other Architecture of Participatory Knowing contributions. As I have argued it is important to have this personal connection to acknowledge the participants and make their contributions distinct. I believe this allows for more participation than the open-source process does, and maintains the linked authorship that Wikipedia erases. The contributions of many users are collectively recorded while the individual contribution is still discernable.

This record, or trace of contributions, is also reflected in the site’s actions. Once a contribution is added it is slowly pulled back in space by the originating text, eventually fading from view. This “half-life” makes the site dependent on participation, because is nothing is contributed the original text vanishes and the site dies. The only way to access the text that initiated the process is through the contributions connected to it. Participation by new authors is required to make the site continue. I believe this is how, by using current architectures, Architecture for Participatory Knowing begins to illustrate and speculate if the creation of a collectively authored mutable artifact is possible.

The ability for people to participate is greatly enhanced by the Internet. Current Web applications start to make tangible much theoretical deduction over dialogic collaboration between audience and author, but there is potential for the creation of far more mutable artifacts. This speculation is especially important in the face of the “participation age” and because of this, deserves this further investigation. Architecture of Participatory Knowing is a project that will hopefully inspire similar investigations.


 Markoff, “Web Content by and for the Masses.”
 Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 148.
 Nieminen, Communication and Democracy, 10.
 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 27.
 Wolf, The Social Production of Art, 104.
 Ibid., 111.
 Nieminen, Communication and Democracy, 15.
 Wolf, The Social Production of Art, 104.
 Hohendahl, “The Public Sphere: Models and Boundaries,” 107.
 Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital, 13.
 Ibid., 13.
 Home, Plagiarism & Praxis, 51.
 Kac, “Negotiating Meaning: Dialogic Imagination in Electronic Art,” 106.
 Wolf, The Social Production of Art, 127.
 Ibid., 127.
 Kac, “Negotiating Meaning:Dialogic Imagination in Electronic Art,” 106.
 Ibid., 106.
 Friedman, The World is Flat, A Brief History of the twenty-first century, 90.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 83.
 Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 51.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 30.
 Wark, A Hacker’s Manifesto, 130.
 Ibid., 103.
 Locke, Concerning Civil Government, 31.
 Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 59.


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