Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Fate of Knowledge

We are often told that knowledge has become abundant, available, and commoditised : In short, it is not important anymore.

Some of these claims are rested on the idea that Google has changed everything. The skills of memorising, retrieving and reproducing information, a task which we took as synonymous to knowing, can be done by computers and smartphones easily, quickly and cheaply. Progressively, the machines can translate, contextualise and correlate better, and it is fair to expect this process nearing perfection over our lifetime. 

I am currently reading Tom Standage's 'Writing On the Wall', a history of social media, where he described Cicero, when he was made the Governor of Cilicia, a province in today's Southeast Turkey, requesting his friend Marcus Caelius Rufus to keep him in the loop by sending the political news of Rome. Caelius, the ever faithful friend, therefore sent him copies of the daily 'acta' ('acta diruna populi Romani', or the 'daily acts of the people of Rome', a daily report that chronicled the discussions of a senate for the people of Rome, an ancient day combination of the Hansard and Daily Mail) at great effort and cost.  He also wrote to Cicero: "Decrees of the senate, edicts, gossip, rumours - they are all there. If you are not altogether pleased with this sample, be sure you let me know, so that I may not not exhaust your patience and my purse at the same time." Sadly for Caelius, Cicero was furious upon receiving his dispatch: "Well! Do you really think that this is what I commissioned you to do, to send me reports of the gladiatorial pairs, the adjournment of trials... such tittle-tattle as nobody would have the impertinence to repeat to me when I am at Rome?" Cicero then goes on to repeat his request, asking for "I do not look for anything about the past or present, but, as may be expected of a man who sees so far ahead into the future, about what is likely to happen". This story ends with Caelius justifying his deed by saying "I had rather err in the direction of telling you what you don't desire to know, than that of passing over anything that is essential".

At a time when each person on earth on average has 320 times the information contained in the famed Library of Alexandria (which was yesteryear's Google, Ptolemy II's scheme of storing 'sums of all the knowledge of the world') and when the stock of information is doubling every three years (compared to roughly 50 years that it took in Europe after Gutenberg's famed invention), Caelius' solution may look more imperfect than ever. The conjecture that quantitative change of massive scale brings out qualitative change is indeed quite relevant here: Gutenberg's printing press made the stock of information (printed books) double over 1.25 lifetimes (with average life expectancy of 40 years in Europe then) but today's digital tsunami means that with 67 years of average life expectancy worldwide (more in developed world), the information stock is likely to grow more than 6 to 8 million times in course of our lifetime. Put simply, mastering all the information (or a good part of it in a given context), which may have been associated with knowing in the past, has been rendered impossible.

In a sense, knowledge has become decoupled from information.

Cicero was not looking for information, he was seeking Caelius' judgement. However, judgement, opinions, which we also treat synonymous with knowledge at times, has also become abundant. I love eggs, but I am yet to know whether eating eggs is good or bad for health. For every study pointing out the ill effects of eggs on my health, there is a contradictory study which says that eating eggs is good for health (the same is true for Alcohol or any other food, and indeed, any trade including Trading in commodities).

Such contradictory judgements become available because there is an dis-intermediation of judgement. With the advent of steam-powered printing press, an unprecedented power was bestowed on expert opinion. Experts, operating with imprecise information because knowing everything was never possible, could stamp judgements with their own authority and celebrity, maintained through the centralised power of broadcast media. Their authority created and maintained 'paradigms', within which sphere acceptable public opinion had to operate.

With the abundance of information media and cheapness of dissemination, the expert power becomes compromised. Knowing, no longer, means understanding expert opinions. Knowing means much more than that: Every expert opinion usually comes with stories such these. Besides, their base of information can be challenged, because we simply have access to those information. (See this story when a B-School student caught out famous scholars). So, once it has become possible to know what these experts know, we have stopped equating knowledge with expert judgement.

In a way, then, knowledge has transcended expert judgement.

In the end, then, this is the time when knowledge has become possible. In a way, information and expert judgements are barriers to knowledge, as they can crowd out our ability or aspiration to know. It is only when the limits of information are transcended, and the expert judgements become negotiable, the responsibility to know, and act with knowledge, gets passed on to us fully. In this setting, knowledge starts with the receiver than the giver, and knowledge becomes not the end of the endeavour but beginning of the responsibility.

The fate of knowledge in this information-abundant society is then to become the lightening rod it was always presumed to be: To enable freedom, from our self-imposed limits of ignorance or servility; to know the positions of others and our own and to transcend them; and to be committed in our acting and to be active in our commitments.

And, this is just the beginning.

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