The Power of Knowledge

Have you watched television recently? Eaten food that had been stored in a refrigerator? Accessed the Internet? Played games on your smartphone? Driven in a car? These are all things that billions of people around the world have access to and often use daily (there are over 2 billion smartphone users). Many of us take these capabilities for granted and rarely do we ask where they come from. And while these are produced by different companies using a wide range of technologies, none of them would be possible without the existence of knowledge.

Knowledge, as I use the term, is the sum total of all information humanity has recorded in a medium and improved over time. There are two crucial parts to this definition. The first is “recorded in a medium” which allows information to be shared across time and space. For instance, stone tablets were some of our earliest ways of recording information. The second is “improved over time” which separates knowledge from mere information, provided that the process of critical inquiry is allowed to operate (we first encountered this process in the chapter on Humanism).

A conversation I had years ago but didn't record cannot be knowledge. However, if I write down an insight from that conversation, or even the conversation verbatim, and publish it on my blog, I've potentially contributed to human knowledge. The conversation isn't accessible to anyone who wasn't there at the moment it happened. Even my own recollection of the conversation will fade. The blog post, by contrast, is available to others across space and time. Some blog posts will turn out to be important and become part of human knowledge. As another example, the DNA we carry in our cells isn't knowledge by my definition, whereas a sequenced and recorded genome can be. Every person's DNA sequence is ephemeral, i.e. disappears with our bodies. Recorded sequences though can be maintained over time, shared and analyzed. Ones that turns out to be medically relevant, such as the BRCA mutation that increases breast cancer risk, become part of human knowledge.

This definition of knowledge is intentionally broad and includes not just technical and scientific knowledge but also art, music, literature. But the definition is also narrow in that it excludes anything that is either ephemeral or not subject to improvement. Computers these days produce tons of recorded information, such as logs of activity on a system, that are mere information, unless they are subsequently analysed.

I started this section with examples of everyday technologies that would not exist without the power of knowledge. An even stronger illustration of its power is that without knowledge many of us would not be here today. As we saw in the chapter on population, Malthus was right about population growth but wrong about its most dire consequences because he did not foresee technological progress powered by knowledge. It is useful to go through one specific example to show just how powerful knowledge is and how it improves over time.

Humans breath air. But for the longest time we did not know what air consists of. Both oxygen and nitrogen, the two primary components of air, were not identified and isolated as elements until late in the 18th century (around 1770). Separately the systematic study of manure as a fertilizer, which had been used in agricultural practice dating back to Egyptian and Roman times, didn't start until the early 19th century. That study led us to understand that ammonia, which consists of nitrogen and hydrogen, is a powerful fertilizer. Progress in chemistry and industrial processes eventually resulted in the so-called Haber process for nitrogen fixation, which means converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be available to plants. The Haber process, which was invented in the early 20th century, became a crucial ingredient in raising agricultural yields globally and thus averting the Malthusian dystopia.

How successful has this been? For most humans today, about half the nitrogen in our bodies has been touched by the Haber process on its way into plants and animals that we subsequently ingest. Put differently: knowledge is so powerful that we are now made from knowledge.

What my much compressed history of nitrogen fixation doesn't capture are the many false starts along the way. It seems hilarious to us now, but at one point a leading theory as to why some materials can burn had nothing to do with oxygen but was attributed to the material containing “phlogiston” which was thought to be the part of the material that “disappears” into the air when burning. Without the improvement of knowledge over time, we might have remained stuck at that theory.

When thinking about the power of knowledge, we must remember that a year, or a decade, or even a hundred years are all trivial in the time scale of humanity, and in turn, humanity's time scale is trivial compared to that of the universe. When considering longer time frames, we should regard as possible all speculative propositions that don't explicitly contravene the laws of physics—a line of thinking inspired by a new theoretical foundation for science called Constructor Theory [57].

Consider for a moment what knowledge might allow humanity to do in the future. We might, through further discovery, rid ourselves of fossil fuels, cure any disease, take care of every human's basic needs, and travel to other planets in our solar system (organizations like SpaceX and NASA are already working toward this goal [55]). Eventually we might even travel to the stars. We could, of course, also blow our own planet to bits before any of that can happen or be struck by a massive asteroid (this is why allocating our collective attention properly is so crucial). Now, you might say: “Travel to the stars? That's impossible.” Actually, it isn't. Extremely difficult? Yes. Requiring technology that doesn't yet exist? Yes. But impossible? No. Interstellar travel is definitely not imminent, but with the further accretion of knowledge, it will become possible.

Knowledge is the essential human project. We are the only species on planet earth that has created knowledge. This is also why I include art and music in my definition of knowledge. Art has allowed humans to express our hopes and fears, and its accretion into culture has helped motivate the large scale coordination and mobilization of human effort. We can broadly think of technical component of knowledge as underpinning the “how” of our lives and the artistic component the “why” And if you have ever doubted the power of the art portion of knowledge, just think of the many times throughout history and the present when dictators and authoritarian regimes have banned and destroyed works of art.

The Knowledge Loop

Already today knowledge has made possible something extraordinary: by means of the innovations of the Industrial Age we can, in principle, meet everyone's basic needs. But we cannot stop here. We need to generate additional knowledge to solve the problems we have introduced along the way, such as climate change. Knowledge is powerful, but only if we have enough of it. Where will that additional knowledge come from?

New knowledge does not spring forth in a vacuum. Instead it emerges from what I call the Knowledge Loop. In the Knowledge Loop, someone starts out by learning something, then uses that to create something new, which is then shared which in turn is the basis for more learning. And so on.

The Knowledge Loop

The Knowledge Loop is not new. Given my definition of knowledge, it has been around since humans first developed written language, some five thousand years ago. Before that humans were able to use spoken language, but as I have noted previously that puts tight limits on both time and space for learning and sharing. Since the invention of written language we have had breakthroughs that have helped accelerate and broaden access to the Knowledge Loop. Those include moveable type (about one thousand years ago), the printing press (about five hundred years ago), and then more recently the telegraph, radio and television. Now we are in the middle of another fundamental breakthrough: digital technologies, which can connect all of humanity to the Knowledge Loop at zero marginal cost and are allowing machines to participate in the Knowledge Loop.

It is easy to underestimate the potential of digital technologies for further accelerating and broadening access to the Knowledge Loop; to many, it seems as if these innovations have under-delivered. As a line on the Founders Fund website once complained, “We wanted flying cars and all we got was 140 characters.” Since that lament we have made great progress on flying cars in no small part because digital technologies, including the maligned Twitter, have already helped accelerate the Knowledge Loop.

The Digital Knowledge Loop Taking Shape

In recent years, we've seen the early signs of what we might call the Digital Knowledge Loop. Let's reflect on a few examples. YouTube has experienced astounding growth since its release in beta form in 2005. As I described earlier, users around the world upload over 100 hours of video content to YouTube every minute. It is difficult to grasp how much content that is. If you were to spend 100 years watching YouTube twenty-four hours a day, you still wouldn't be able to watch all the video that people upload in the course of a single week.

Now, you might say, “YouTube isn't knowledge. It's mostly junk!” But keep in mind, knowledge is improved over time through the process of critical inquiry. We don't know yet which parts of YouTube's content will wind up being maintained over time. And in fact, we are already seeing amazing things happening on YouTube. Suppose you want to learn how to garden? Well ... [examples of all the things you can learn about gardening on YouTube]. Not only that, but there are now also videos telling you how to record your own gardening videos [One Yard Revolution], thus helping ever more people to participate in the Knowledge Loop around gardening.

Now if you don't garden or aren't interested in it this may strike you as an odd example. But you can find videos on virtually any skill on Youtube [examples]. And skills aren't the only interesting things you can learn on YouTube. You can also learn languages, math, science, and so on. [Smarter Everyday + other science and math examples]

Here is the most important part: All of these videos are available for free to anyone in the world (Well, almost anyone. YouTube is banned in some countries). They are also available 24x7. And they become available globally the second someone publishes a new one. All you need to access these videos is an Internet connection and a smartphone—you don't even need a laptop or other traditional computer.

Many of the videos available on YouTube exemplify the Digital Knowledge Loop at work. Let's say someone has learned something, such as how to play a chord on the guitar. They then create something—a song that includes that chord. Finally they share that song by recording themselves performing it and publishing it on YouTube. Instantly, that performance becomes knowledge from which anyone else, anywhere in the world, at any time can learn. And as others learn and share, the Knowledge Loop continues.

Wikipedia also gives rise to a digital version of the Knowledge Loop. Someone reads an entry and learns something from it (e.g., the method used by Pythagoras to approximate the number pi). They then go off and create something (e.g., an animation that illustrates this method). Finally, they share it by publishing it back to the encyclopedia or elsewhere on the Internet for that matter. Now, Wikipedia differs from YouTube in some important ways. Instead of presenting a set of disconnected videos, that at best are connected via either human curated playlists or computer generated suggestions, Wikipedia presents entries that stem from a large collaboration and ongoing revision process, with only a single entry per topic visible at any given time (although you can examine both the history of the page and the conversations about it). What makes this possible is a piece of software known as a wiki that keeps track of all the historical edits [58].

Wikipedia also differs from YouTube in that it allows individuals to participate in extremely small or minor ways. If you wish, you can contribute to Wikipedia by fixing a single typo. In fact, the minimal contribution unit is just one letter! I have not yet contributed anything of length to Wikipedia, but I have fixed probably a dozen or so typos. That doesn't sound like much, but if you get ten thousand people to fix a typo every day, that's 3.65 million typos a year. Let's assume that a single person takes two minutes on average to discover and fix a typo. It would take nearly fifty people working full time for a year (2500 hours) to fix 3.65 million typos. This is just one concrete example of how digital technology can dramatically expand who can contribute to the Knowledge Loop.

While Wikipedia enables broad small contributions, other digital platforms allow people to contribute to the Knowledge Loop by doing absolutely nothing. The app Waze is a good example. You install the app on your phone (okay, that's one thing you do have to do). The app then tracks if you seem to be in a car, and if that car is moving fast or slow. It passes that information back to Waze's servers, and the company's algorithms crunch it to figure out where traffic is moving smoothly and where drivers will encounter slowdowns or outright traffic jams. During your commute into work, you might use Waze to learn where traffic is moving quickly and where it is congested. Or if you happen to find yourself at a location where traffic is congested, the data you contribute allows the system to understand the cause of the congestion and pass that along to other drivers (the “create” and “share” parts of the Knowledge Loop). If you choose to take a different route, you again automatically share your speed on that potential detour with other users of the system.

Why prevent someone from accessing YouTube, Wikipedia or Waze, either by cutting them off from the system altogether or charging a price they can't afford? This would always constitute a loss to society. With marginal cost at or near zero, any given individual might receive some benefit, which constitutes a benefit greater than the marginal cost. And best of all, they might use what they learn to create something that they share and that in turn winds up delivering extraordinary enjoyment or a scientific breakthrough to the world.

Technology is Not Enough

If the Knowledge Loop combined with digital technologies is so powerful, why do we need to work at becoming a knowledge society? Why not just keep government out of the way and let entrepreneurs and markets take care of everything from here on out? Because we are living with older structures that are the legacy of over a century of industrial society.

We have based our economies around the Job Loop, which is currently breaking down and yet is still trapping a lot of our attention. We have based our laws about information access on locking up information and selling it like industrial products. And we have developed a culture that supports our participation in the industrial economy, both as producers (workers) and consumers. Both collectively and individually, we have adopted a range of assumptions and beliefs that enable us to structure our lives around our jobs and to fuel the economy through consumption.

Put differently, the Industrial Age is a system of many interlocking parts. Systems have a lot of inertia and carry on for a long time. Just having digital technology available doesn't change that. In fact, as we saw earlier, digital technology can also result in a huge concentration of power. Digital technology can also be used to manipulate by spreading propaganda more efficiently and better targeted than ever before.

If we want to truly unleash the Knowledge Loop, if we want to make it central to our lives, if we want to reap its benefits and limit its downsides, then we need to make major changes in regulation and self-regulation. These are the subject of Part Three.

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