Weekly Newsletter #14: Universal Knowledge

Many of us have a dream: make all the knowledge in the world accessible to everyone. Part of that problem is that we have struggled immensely to access knowledge — texts, mentors and a peer network. The internet has made accessing information much easier, but if anything it has made accessing knowledge harder, for it has added an additional layer of complexity to the seeker’s pursuit.

Information overload is arguably worse than scarcity, for it makes it much harder to know what’s worth pursuing. Add that to the inherent complexity of knowledge, and you have a very hard system to crack. Knowledge is not information. Information, for better or worse, is objective, mechanized and easy to access in the age of Google. It’s also (no longer, anyway) not a source of livelihood. Knowledge, on the other hand, is inherently value laden, socially mediated, greatly influenced by power relations.

As a characteristically human activity, knowledge work is a plausible path to livelihood, career and identity. Making knowledge available to all is intrinsically tied to making knowledge work available to all. That’s a much harder problem than making information available to everyone because of the complexity of human knowledge.

The Minaret

Human knowledge has become enormously complex over the last five hundred years. Three hundred years ago, it was possible for a scientist to know all the science that existed. Two hundred years ago, it was possible for a good mathematician to know all the math that existed. A hundred years ago, a good algebraist would have known all the algebra that existed. Now, it’s impossible for a good algebraic geometer to know all the algebraic geometry that exists.

The Mughal emperor Shahjahan was imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb, and spent his last days in one corner of the fort in Agra. Fortunately, Aurangzeb was kind enough to house Shahjahan in a room whose window overlooked the Taj Mahal. From his minaret, the deposed emperor could look at his beloved ex-wife in whose honor he had spent half the empire’s fortune by building that great paean to romance.

Our own predicament as a knowledge civilization seems similar to the Mughal emperor’s downfall. Of all the things we are proud of in the modern world — from spaceships to ipods, from human rights to the UN — we are perhaps proud of knowledge the most. Technological fads come and go, scientific theories fall by the wayside, but our collective capacity to build layers of knowledge on top of each other is the foundation for all other innovation.

We believe that our collective creation of knowledge is one of the great edifices in human history. An unfortunate consequence of our impressive tower of knowledge is that we are all stuck in our respective minarets. That’s the price of success right? Isn’t it OK for us to be little cogs in the giant wisdom wheel?

Let me offer a counter view, that our knowledge system is obese and unhealthy. The very immensity of our knowledge system is making it unstable. Major structural errors are invisible to us because we only have access to a view out of our minarets. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an incomplete knowledge system; we are finite creatures and absolute truth is permanently hidden from us. However, our current knowledge system claims to be absolute in its aims; not only that, it behaves as a totalizing system in practice, with complete control over all the channels of knowledge, all means of legitimacy and advancement and access to livelihood. In other words, it is an idolatrous system. I want to start a constructive program to create an alternate system. A system that’s radically simpler, even simplistic. It literally should be child’s play.

Building Blocks

What might an alternate set of building blocks look like? Some thoughts below:

  1. Transparency: A building block should be cognitively transparent. If you are in a learning phase, the block can have a tiny bit of difficulty that get’s ironed out with practice. Of course, what’s cognitively transparent for me may not be cognitively transparent for you, therefore, we need smart ways of figuring out where a particular individual stands.
  2. Play: It should be fun, at least in the early years, to play with these knowledge blocks. Deep play, which teaches you new skills while situating outside the realm of social climbing is most likely to make old knowledge easy to digest and produce new knowledge.
  3. Craft. We should assume that the production of knowledge is a profession, like any other craft profession. Therefore, it should be rewarding, lead to a sustainable livelihood but at the same time, it shouldn’t be dominated by stars and elite conceptions. As knowledge that’s dominated by practice, there’s no reason to push “research” as the main goal of knowledge. We obviously want to push the boundaries of knowledge, but why should that be done in a spirit of competition, distrust and ego? Instead, we are much better off creating systems of collaborative pushing of knowledge boundaries. That’s the right thing to do in both senses of that term — it’s a surer path to the truth and it’s the ethical thing to do — uses fewer resources and creates public goods as a designed outcome.
  4. Livelihood. We now have an incredibly hierarchical knowledge system. At the top are the elite knowledge workers, the philosopher kings who are paid to think deep thoughts. Then there’s a much larger community of professionals who have permanent positions but aren’t seen as creators. Then there’s an even larger community of adjuncts who neither have security nor do they have any status as creators.

This hierarchical knowledge system is wasteful, for investigators see themselves in competition with each other for scarce resources. Instead, if we think of knowledge workers as craftsmen, they should be supported for the replication of their skills in other people. A knowledge society needs a large population of knowledge workers whether they create new knowledge or not, just as we need lots of doctors whether they can treat new diseases or not.

This week’s links

Only marginally related to the topic of the newsletter, but great reading anyway:

  1. Alan Moore’s million word novel in the making.
  2. Rescuing “The Philosopher” from his caricature. FYI — Such was Aristotle’s fame in the middle ages that he was called the philosopher, as if no one else could attain that stature.

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