Monday, May 18, 2009

Good Knowledge Gone Bad

A few days ago I wrote about time and knowledge. I thought that the “storehouse” metaphor for knowledge was leading us astray and that we could use knowledge better if we would select quicker metaphors, metaphors such as a “sprinkling” that reflect the way we may access knowledge and act on it within a matter of seconds, after which we may be free to forget the knowledge we have just used.

I failed to mention another, perhaps more urgent reason why the storehouse metaphor for knowledge and the long-term approach it implies for learning and using knowledge is a problem. Much of what we think we know is no longer true. It is obsolete knowledge, or what Alvin and Heidi Toffler call obsoledge in their book Revolutionary Wealth. Obviously, the more time that has passed since knowledge was collected, the greater the chance that the knowledge is no longer correct.

This is something I experience when I look in the world atlas. The atlas I use was drawn up in 1994 but not printed until 1995, which means some of the place names it shows had changed even before it was printed. When I look at the atlas, I refer to my mental list of changes that have taken place in the world, but my knowledge in this area is not only incomplete — it too is out of date.

You might think that getting information online would get you up-to-the-minute information, but often that’s not the case. The prior name for the street I live on was officially discontinued in the 1950s, but it continued to be shown on Google Maps until just last month.

You’re asking for trouble when you try to reach agreement between people whose knowledge is obsolete and people who have a more current, if less complete, view of the situation. Add in the fact that many of the leaders in business and politics are men of advanced age who possess a great deal of obsolete knowledge, and you assure that these disputes will continue to drag on the economy for years to come.

As the Tofflers point out, one particularly troubling area in which this conflict occurs is in health care. Much of what doctors know is half a century out of date. Some of a doctor’s knowledge could be based on a medical textbook written in 1970 based on scientific study from 1950. But a patient can often discover the latest scientific thinking on a health subject, information that may not make it into the medical textbooks for another 15 years, with just a day or two of digging online. The patient may misunderstand the significance of much of this information, yet the doctor may not have time to sort through it. In the end, it’s understandable if patients resist or ignore medical advice grounded in scientific thinking from the previous century, while doctors worry that patients are not taking their recommendations seriously.

As long as knowledge degrades with the passage of time, any storehouse of knowledge is at risk. If you think of knowledge as being carved in stone, it’s not so easy to change your perspective and start thinking of it as being carved in pumpkins, perhaps, and this is one reason why so many successful businesses decline so quickly after reaching the peak of success. In the coming years, we will continue to see established businesses fall apart after the knowledge they have come to rely on goes bad.