2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Making Minds Less Well Educated than Our Own

The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge

Fifteen years ago I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. In short order, I learned that these editors saw themselves as guardians of knowledge. They knew what was true and what was important and only knowledge that fit those criteria would be in their encyclopedia. I asked if the encyclopedia could be say, ten times bigger, economic issues aside, and they said  ‘no' the right information was already in there. I started to explain that the world as they knew it was going to change before their eyes and they would soon be toast, but they didn't understand.

I have had similar conversation with newspaper editors, librarians, heads of testing services, and with faculty at top universities. Like the Britannica folks, they see themselves as knowing what is true and what is not and what is important and what is not.

I am optimistic that this is soon all about to change.

What I mean by ‘this' is the era that we have lived in, ever since the invention of the book, but clearly including the era where knowledge was contained in scrolls. In this era, knowledge is a commodity, owned and guarded by the knowledge elite and doled out by them in various forms that they control, like books, and, newspapers, and television, and schools. They control who can get access to the knowledge (through admission to elite schools for example) and exactly what knowledge matters (through SATs but also through intellectual publications that true knowledge owners would be embarrassed to have failed to have read.)

We are beginning to see the change in all this now. If anyone can take Harvard's courses on line then one wonders why one has to go to Harvard. Elite universities have struggled with this new world, but eventually people will take whatever course they want from whomever they want and a real competition about quality will take place.

We no longer have only three TV networks, so more points of view are available, but the cost of running a TV station is still high and there are barriers to entry and there is still the idea that a TV station broadcasts all day even if it has nothing to say. Soon this too will disappear. You tube is just they beginning.

Today print media is being challenged by on line material, but it is still prestigious to publish a book and newspapers still exist. More importantly, schools still exist. But they are all going away soon. There is no need to buy knowledge when it available for free, as newspapers are learning. When everyone has a blog and a website, the question will be whose information is reliable and how to find it. No one will pay a dime. Knowledge will cease to be a commodity.

I consider this to be a very good thing. I believe that those who own and dispense knowledge have turned off at last one and maybe more generations of thinkers to believe that all the important ideas are known and it is sad that you just don't know them. Religions have operated on this principle of knowing what is in the sacred scrolls for a very long time. Schools have acted similarly. Soon no one will be able to claim they know what is true because people will be able  to create debates for themselves. Google has helped make this happen already but you ain't seen nothin' yet.

You may want to pay for the knowledge of someone who you believe to be very valuable to help you in doing something that you want to do, but that kind of knowledge will acquired ‘just in time,' sort of the way consultants operate today, but for everyone and there will be hundreds of thousand of choices.

More importantly the size of information will change. Today the size is a book or an article or a lecture or a course, But soon it will be a sound bite (or a paragraph.). Yes — those terrible sound bites which the owners of knowledge like to complain about. Nuggets of knowledge will win because they always have won. People used to have conversations, sound bite followed by sound bite, directed towards a mutual goal held by the conversationalists. This will soon be possible on line. You will able to start a conversation with (an electronic version of ) anyone who wants to offer this service. We will be able to get information in the size that we got it thousands of years ago — in a size that we can process and respond to. No more blank-eyed listeners as people ramble on. Information will find us and we will express our thoughts back. Knowledge will mostly be free and the owners of knowledge will need to go into another line of work. Knowledge will cease to be a controlled commodity.