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 Promise and Peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop

The zero marginal cost and universality of digital technologies are already impacting the three phases of learning, creating and sharing, giving rise to a Digital Knowledge Loop. This Digital Knowledge Loop holds both amazing promise and great peril, as can be seen in the example of YouTube.

YouTube has experienced astounding growth since its release in beta form in 2005. People around the world now upload over 100 hours of video content to YouTube every minute. It is difficult to grasp just 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. YouTube contains amazing educational content on topics as diverse as gardening and theoretical math. Many of those videos show the promise of the Digital Knowledge loop. For example, Destin Sandlin, the creator of the Smarter Every Day series of videos. Destin is interested in all things science. When he learns something new, such as the make-up of butterfly wings, he creates a new engaging video sharing that with the world. But the peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop is right there as well: YouTube is also full of videos that peddle conspiracies, spread mis-information, and even incite outright hate.

Both the promise and the peril are made possible by the same characteristics of YouTube: All of the videos are available for free to anyone in the world (except for those countries in which YouTube is blocked). They are also available 24x7. And they become available globally the second someone publishes a new one. Anybody can publish a video. 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. That means already today two to three billion people, almost half of the world's population has access to YouTube and can participate in the Digital Knowledge Loop for good and for bad.

These characteristics, which draw on the underlying capabilities of digital technology, are also found in other systems that similarly show the promise and peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop.

Wikipedia, the collectively-produced online encyclopedia is another great example. Here is how it works at its most promising: Someone reads an entry and learns the method used by Pythagoras to approximate the number pi. They then go off and create an animation that illustrates this method. Finally, they share the animation by publishing it back to Wikipedia thus making it easier for more people to learn. Wikipedia entries result 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]. When that process works well it raises the quality of entries over time. But when there is a coordinated effort at manipulation or insufficient editing resources, Wikipedia too can spread misinformation instantly and globally.

Wikipedia illustrates another important aspect of the Digital Knowledge Loop: 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.

Small contributions by many that add up are only possible in the Digital Knowledge Loop. The Wikipedia spelling correction example shows the power of such contributions. Their peril can be seen in systems such as Twitter and Facebook, where the smallest contributions are Likes and Retweets or Reposts to one's friends or followers. While these tiny actions can amplify high quality content, they can just as easily spread mistakes, rumors and propaganda. The impact of these information cascades ranges from viral jokes to swaying the outcomes of elections and has even led to major outbreaks of violence.

Some platforms even make it possible for people to passively contribute to the Digital Knowledge Loop. The app Waze is a good example. The app 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. Waze then proposes alternative routes that take traffic flow into account. If you follow a different route proposed by Waze, you again automatically contribute your speed on that potential detour. That is the promise of a lot of passive contribution. To see the peril consider Google's auto-complete for search queries. These are derived from what people are frequently searching for. As a result, they often reflect existing biases. But more than reflect them, they wind up amplifying them: often instead of typing out their query, users select one of the auto-completes that is presented to them.

The promise of the Digital Knowledge Loop is broad access to a rapidly improving body of knowledge. The peril is a fragmented post-truth society constantly in conflict. Both of these possibilities are enabled by the same fundamental characteristics of digital technologies. And once again we see clearly that technology by itself does not determine the future.

Technology is Not Enough

To achieve the promise of the Digital Knowledge Loop and avoid its peril requires nothing short of a massive societal transition. We need to leave the Industrial Age behind and enter the Knowledge Age. That will be hard.

We have based our economies around the Job Loop, which is 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 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. As we saw earlier, digital technology simply harnessed to the existing system results in a huge concentration of power and a massively stretched income and wealth distribution. And worse yet, it tilts the Digital Knowledge Loop away from its promise and towards peril.

What is at stake is nothing short of the survival of the human species. We are facing problems, such as climate change, that can only be surmounted if we make the Digital Knowledge Loop work for us. We must reap its promise and limit its perils. In order to accomplish the necessary transition into the Knowledge Age, we need to make dramatic changes in regulation and self-regulation. These are the subject of Part Three.

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