Knowledge (or) Economy – or how not knowing things is to make us rich


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‘In a world which is really topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.’ (Debord 1977)

We hear a lot these days about knowledge. If the near orgasmic language in which politicians speak about it could make it happen, then we would all be coming together over knowledge as a commodity. Take this excrescence from Minister Pat Rabitte (Irish Labour Party):

Our strategy is to position Ireland as a leading edge location for developing integrated energy solutions where knowledge-intensive international and Irish companies along with leading researchers partner (sic) will develop innovative energy solutions for global markets.

I mean to say, isn’t that mighty!

Never mind our snail-slow broadband (I pay for 8 mb but get 4, for example, because the line to our house won’t go faster); our F1-speed rising national debt; our rank stupidity in privatising the only national company that could make a technological revolution possible (Eircom) together with its then state-of-the art communication system and the fact that the corporations who bought that national resource asset-stripped it and now can’t flog it because nobody wants a dead duck – never mind all that we’re going to invent INNOVATIVE ENERGY SOLUTIONS FOR GLOBAL MARKETS.

We might or we might not, but if we do they’ll be owned by someone else.

The word ‘innovative’ is de rigeur for these statements. Everything has to be innovative and our world-class entrepreneurs are the very men (no women need apply) to be doing the innovating. Apparently we’re going to innovate our way out of the debt pit that we have innovated our way into. The difference between the innovation that got us in and the one that’s going to get us out is that the old innovation was invented by entrepreneurs who weren’t as knowledge-intensive as the new crowd. Or put it another way, our last round of innovative entrepreneurs were mainly into inventing new financial instruments with which to bet on other people’s new financial instruments, whereas this new crowd are actually going to invent instruments – real instruments made of metal or chips or clouds or something. The first crowd were financial entrepreneurs, the next crowd will be engineering entrepreneurs. In addition to all of that, the last crowd weren’t into integrated energy solutions. For god’s sake, what kind of an entrepreneurial innovation society could survive without innovative and integrated energy solutions? They must have been mad. You certainly won’t get clouds without it.

One of the strangest thing about all this knowledge talk is that they’re not actually talking about knowledge at all. The concept of knowledge has a long and contested history as a brief glance at this rather incomplete Wikipedia article on epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge) will confirm.

By comparison, if you look at the OECD’s glossary of terms and search for ‘knowledge’ what you come up with is this page which doesn’t define what it means by ‘knowledge’ at all, but instead lists the following entries: ‘Knowledge-based economy’; ‘Knowledge robot’; ‘Knowledge management’; ‘Investment in knowledge’; ‘Disclosure by response knowledge’; ‘Acquisition of technology and knowledge’. The first one is defined thus:

  1. “The knowledge based economy” is an expression coined to describe trends in advanced economies towards greater dependence on knowledge, information and high skill levels, and the increasing need for ready access to all of these by the business and public sectors.

Commendably brief – who needs philosophy.

The crucial factor here is that ‘knowledge’ is an economic term that refers to a commodity that can be bought, sold, used to add value to other commodities or used to guide investment. It is therefore something you (we) will have to pay for. In this instrumental view, knowledge is defined by its profitability, whereas philosophy – and people in general – tend to see knowledge as something much bigger.

I know a lot of songs, for example, though I can’t really sing. I’m not sure that a person who can’t sing has any reason to learn songs. I certainly can’t turn them to any practical use other than entertaining myself and my dog on long journeys when the alternative is to listen to RTE Radio. Nevertheless, I know them and that is a kind of knowledge. In another person, a singer, this would be valuable knowledge. But we both know the same thing. I also know chunks of poetry, things about the natural world, bits of history and political thought and philosophy, how to write books (sometimes) and an entire lucky-bag full of useful and useless information. Most or all of this has always been recognised as knowledge. I am knowledgeable in the way that a birdwatcher is knowledgeable – both of us know things that we’ll never make a penny out of, but we are, nevertheless knowledgeable in our own peculiar way, and people will ask us things to which we can sometimes supply an answer. Some people even respect us for our knowledge, as we in turn respect others. We both also know more profitable things from which we make a living.

Our lords and masters don’t want us to acquire this kind of knowledge though. They want us to acquire the ‘skill set’ that will enable us to find something if we require it. Put another way, they want us to be able to use Google.

In a way, this particular ‘skill set’ was always a part of being learned. A person might not know the answer to a particular question but would know how to go about finding it – whether through books, colleagues or contacts, or through a reasoning process that nowadays it is fashionable to call ‘problem-solving’. The bird-watcher travelling in a new country encounters a bird species that he does not recognise. He knows how to find that species, because he knows how to describe it in technical language and where it will be described in the literature, and if not, he can ask someone. In other words, he knows an algorithm that will lead him to a solution.

So there’s nothing new in this kind of thinking. It’s not a new skill set at all, it’s just a very limited one that everyone already has as part, but only part, of the things they know. What is new is the idea that it’s all we need because it’s ‘all there on the internet’.

One of the effects of this is to disempower people. The knowledge we carry around in our heads forms part of our self-image; it is the basis of our approach to the world and it allows us to make reasonable and emotional responses to things that happen to us. More importantly, knowledge allows us to think critically about ourselves, our lives and our society. If we know, for example, that austerity is what turned the Wall Street Crash into The Great Depression then we can make a judgement about the wisdom of political parties that favour austerity measures. Even if we don’t know it to begin with, we can find it out because we have some knowledge of history or economics. Of course, if we didn’t have that fundamental knowledge, the question would never occur to us.

Another effect is to limit the kinds of things we learn to those fields that are readily turned into commodities for the market place. History, for example, is gradually being replaced by The History Channel. In Ireland there are moves afoot to reduce history to a module in a course that will also include Geography and Civics and whatever else they think could be fitted in. The idea is that a few classes in history would be sufficient to point you in the direction of television and internet history ‘sources’. The actual result will be that most people will get their history from something like Saving Private Ryan or U-571.

You will argue, a great deal of the information on the internet is free and therefore not, at present, commodified at all. But bear in mind that if you decide to check any of the points made in this article you will be paying for it. In fact, despite my commitment to free content, you are already paying for this article (I hope you’re getting value-for-money, whatever that is) by paying for your internet connection. The same is true for the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia – a very useful resource despite what everyone says – but only free in the sense that you have paid to connect to it but you haven’t paid Wikipedia itself anything.

All of this ‘knowledge economy’ stuff is driven by a theory called Human Capital. According to this particular wheeze, ‘people are a company’s most valuable asset’. That means ‘people’ are more important than machines or plant or raw materials. Like all assets, companies would like them to arrive ready made – think of how governments tend to build factories in pleasant places (the ‘technology park’, for example) and then invite corporations to fill them. Companies would like their human capital to come fit for purpose, ready trained and moulded to the corporate mentality. Thus, companies, and therefore governments, want education systems to produce human capital for them – they want people to be flexible (meaning they won’t object to being fired and will be happy with short-term contracts and long hours), lifelong learners (prepared to spend their money on retraining themselves for the next job), problem-solvers (people who are prepared to follow the company strategy for developing new products), and above all skilful in the use of computers without too much knowledge-baggage. Knowledge, according to one writer on the subject, needs to be unlearned before new knowledge can take its place (a conception drawn from the computer world via cognitive psychology). One writer (in Forbes magazine) even suggested that business schools need to embrace unlearning – a suggestion that this particular writer thinks is hardly necessary in relation to the schools in question.

In addition, it must be remembered that while books are relatively inexpensive, and virtually free if you share, swap or join a library, the internet involves continuous payment for internet providers, hardware, software and software updates, as well as the internet’s own protection racket, virus-protection software. Thus, our thirst for knowledge can only be satisfied by the expenditure of vast sums of money on an annual basis. Needless to say, corporations are quite pleased about that, thank you very much.

So when the government talks about the ‘knowledge economy’ and the kind of education system we need for it, bear in mind that whole point is to turn your knowledge to profitable use for multinational corporations. It is attempting to reshape your way of thinking about life to make you reliant on expensive technology, happy with precarious work, less likely to resist changes that suit the rich and powerful and relatively powerless yourself. It doesn’t want you to know things because the more you know the less likely you are to swallow the rubbish they spout.

In this case ‘knowledge’ really means stupidity. We are to put our trust, once again in our lords and masters. And once again, it will cost us. And the end result is unpredictable but is without precedent in at least 1,000 years. And we all know (know!) that even if the rest of us have to settle for skills, there will still be an elite for whom knowledge is money. Not knowing things will make us all the easier to exploit.

Finally, what happens if the internet drops dead? Impossible you say. But a large solar stormcould do it, and there are other possible events. It is unlikely, I know, nevertheless, as a thought experiment, imagine if tomorrow morning all electronics on the planet stopped working. How then would we reconstruct the knowledge we need to survive? People, you say, would still know how to put it together. Well, whoever those people might be, they won’t be us.

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William Wall is the author four novels, the most recent of which, This Is The Country (2005), has been described as a 'broad attack on the Celtic Tiger'. He has also published poetry and short stories.

6 Responses

  1. Skirmish

    June 22, 2012 11:02 am

    This article explains why our universities are being actively destroyed by careerist pin-heads who struggle with any concept of knowledge beyond innovation, enterprise, commercialisation and planned-obsolescent skills. All measured, of course, on spreadsheets.

    And all under the ‘guidance’ of the HEA, headed by a telecoms salesman.

    Ironically well worth the cost of my internet connection!

  2. William Wall

    June 22, 2012 11:22 am

    Good point Skirmish. I thought I had removed that logo a long time ago, but I suppose some update or other put it back. It’ll be removed in due course when I can get around to it. I’m not proud that it’s made on a Mac, but Apple apparently is.

    On the other hand, it is made on a Mac. The alternative would be to make it on something like a Dell. I’ve never liked using Windows, so I tend to avoid contact with the software as much as possible. In any case, it would have to be made on a piece of computer hardware, made by one corporation or another and running software made by that or other corporations, which is exactly my point.

  3. Skirmish

    June 22, 2012 2:57 pm

    Sorry William. Didn’t mean to add to your labour. I certainly wouldn’t want to divert you from your work of sense-making and knowledge creation.

    Mac/Dell… little difference. Each is a MNC with similar aims and means, but I don’t think anyone but Apple would stick their logo on your work with quite the same degree of self-righteous smugness.

    Longer-term, of course, you may want to look at open source options.

    * Written on a generic PC with a Mickey Mouse PC brand of which I am neither proud nor ashamed 😉

  4. William Wall

    June 22, 2012 3:02 pm

    Well it’s gone now anyway. Thanks for pointing it out. And yes, you’re right about the smugness. Though, Microsoft is almost their equal and the maker of crap software to boot (no pun intended).