Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Sprinkling of Knowledge

The nature of knowledge is changing before our eyes, yet we are having trouble seeing the change because of the metaphor we use for knowledge.

The strongest metaphor for knowledge in Western thought is a storehouse. In ancient Egypt, a good storehouse was essential for survival, and advanced knowledge in fields such as astrology and geometry made civilization possible, so probably that is where the idea of a storehouse of knowledge was created. The metaphor has been eagerly promoted by schoolmasters who encouraged students to work hard, presumably carrying boxes and crates of knowledge into their personal storehouses. Eventually, a student’s storehouse would be full, at which point they could graduate (assuming they didn’t keel over from the effort first), and then they could start to make some practical use of their accumulation of knowledge.

The storehouse is a good working metaphor for knowledge, but it emphasizes qualities of knowledge that do not always hold true. In particular, it suggests that gaining knowledge is a laborious, large-scale process, and that knowledge might be retained for a very long time before it is used. And when it comes to knowledge, the more, the better.

Sometimes all that is true. But often, especially in recent years, the opposite is true. I can easily think of situations in which I gained knowledge quickly and easily and used it immediately, with no need to learn it comprehensively or retain it for later.

  • When writing a computer program, I wanted to use a framework I had never used before. All I had to do was mimic the way someone else had used that framework. It took only minutes to find good examples to copy, in books and online.
  • I assembled the desk I am writing at now in a step-by-step process of about 20 steps. The desk came with assembly instructions and I followed them one step at a time, with no need to understand or remember the process as a whole.
  • A few years ago I took a dance exercise class. I never had to study the advanced choreography we were doing because the instructor called out the movements as we went along.
  • Last year when I drove to Nashville for voice instruction I didn’t pay much attention to how I would get there. A simple one-minute query on a web site gave me a single page of instructions which were sufficient to tell me where to drive.
  • When I decided to buy a camera, I didn’t know the state of camera technology or the right place to buy a camera. It took me only an hour or so to find out enough to make an informed purchase. There wasn’t much point in remembering what I had learned in that process — cameras are changing so rapidly that the information I used is mostly obsolete already.

In these and countless other scenarios, knowledge is being used, but the focus is on a pattern of action. There is just enough knowledge at just the right time for the action to take place. It doesn’t fit the storehouse model of knowledge at all — knowledge was gained with no particular effort and retained only for a few moments or a few days.

Much of the knowledge we use fits this pattern. It is cheap, easily accessible, almost an afterthought, much like the salt in a salt shaker. And this will be even more true in the future as more of the barriers to knowledge are overcome, and access to knowledge is made even more quick and effortless than it is already.

Why clutter up your storehouse of knowledge when, in most situations, a sprinkling of knowledge will do? It’s a question that has profound implications for the future shape of the economy, not the least of which has to do with the role of experts. The economy in recent decades has been run largely by experts, who command high salaries for their expertise, but as knowledge becomes cheaper, it will get harder and harder to draw the distinction between the experts and the dilettantes. So what will happen then?