The Price of Knowledge

26 February 2011


Today the price of knowledge is both lower and higher than perhaps at any other time in history. The roots of this epistemological dialectic reach pervasively throughout the institutions of contemporary industrialized society. I cannot do justice to this dialectic in the space of a single post, but I can attempt to sketch some of the major trends that together comprise our evolving body of knowledge and its intersection with economics. For no more than knowledge can be separated from human interests can it be separated from human activities, including and especially the ordinary business of life that is the purview of economics.

Both popular culture and elite culture alike are dismissive if not abusive of the free knowledge resources available on the internet. I have heard people say that Wikipedia is not to be taken seriously as a source. It is easy to be dismissive, and it is easy to find weaknesses, but it is also easy to find weaknesses in traditional scholastic resources. The greatest weakness of Wikipedia are to be found with the most politicized forms of knowledge; this is equally true with any other source. And when we consider that the previous alternative to Wikipedia was not the full apparatus of scholarly research based in a library, but rather a set of encyclopedias, usually several years or several decades out of date, that were actually ready to hand for any given individual, it is easy to see that Wikipedia is far superior to that old set of encyclopedias. Wikipedia is not the equal of a good research library, but according to this comparison the old set of encyclopedias comes off even worse.

It would be difficult to imagine a knowledge resource more suited to our times of rapid knowledge growth than Wikipedia. Its critics are on the losing side of history, whether or not they understand this. There have been times that I have checked Wikipedia for the dates of the life of someone whose death has just been announced on the news. Not one of these times have I ever found the article without the date of death already recorded, though it may have happened mere hours before. Not only does knowledge change rapidly, but principles of knowledge change as well. The recent consensus of astronomers has decreed that Pluto is not a planet, but you will find a great many books in libraries that declare Pluto a planet unproblematically. While to a certain extent this is a semantical issue, one ought to be aware that there is an issue, as one learns much more from studying the debate on what constitutes a planet than by consulting an authoritative source and memorizing that there are nine (or ten) planets.

It is also common to find both popular and elite sources that belittle what is to be found in blogs. My mother tells me that she listens to a late night radio program out of San Francisco, upon which station there is a host who makes a point of bragging about his academic degrees and being dismissive of internet resources of knowledge. A good example of this dismissive, condescending attitude is to be found in the recent film Going the Distance, about a young couple involved in a long distance relationship. The female protagonist (played by Drew Barrymore) is an aspiring journalist applying for jobs in her field. Instructed to return an editor’s phone call after a given period of time, she does do but is given the brush off by the editor telling her, “you can always write a blog.” Nothing more needs to be said here, for the scriptwriter, at least.

Films are important sources of popular culture attitudes. They would not resonate with their mass audiences if they did not accurately reflect contemporary attitudes. The journalist character of Going the Distance reminded me of the journalist character (also a female protagonist) in The Devil Wears Prada. In this film, based on a recent novel, another aspiring journalist nearly accidentally lands a job at an influential fashion magazine. In this position she lives the high life and has an influential job in which she might accomplish something of significance. By the end of the film she abandons this high flying position, returns to her loser boyfriend, and is seeking a job in which she will be able to write stories about striking janitors (if memory serves). At least part of this narrative must be attributed to the appetite of the mass audience, who would like to see a vivid affirmation of their compromised and mediocre lives, which this protagonist provides in spades.

The screenplay writer would have us believe that this character would prefer to write stories about janitor unions rather than work closely with one of the most powerful women in the world (powerful in a cultural sense). If this character existed in real life, she would spend the rest of her pathetic journalist’s life reflecting on her few months at Runway magazine, because this would have involved experiences not attainable through any other life path. Like a young man plucked off a farm in the American mid-west, put in a uniform, and sent to the capital cities of Europe on leave with money in his pocket, nothing after that is going to compare to what comes next. And although we know that you can’t keep ’em down on the farm once they’ve seen Pair-ee, Hollywood believes that you can.

Presumably the sort of “serious” journalism is what the script writers of these films believe to be worthwhile writing (along with scripts, apparently), while following your passion (or, according to Joseph Campbell) following your bliss, writing whatever you want to write about, and doing what you truly love is not something respected by the screenwriters. But I have digressed more than a little off my topic.

In addition to obvious examples like Wikipedia, there are newspaper and magazine websites that offer some or all of their content for free. While the most popular resources are based on the most popular magazines, serious journalism like The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist (sites that I consult on a regular basis) make much of their content available. There are also blogs written by experts in their field, like Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog, which I have many times cited in previous posts.

One could write all day about the free epistemic resources available today and still not come close to recounting even a part of what is to be had for the asking. Every day I get an e-mail from as well as one from Foreign Policy magazine that give me headlines about political and military developments. These free resources have become central to my apprehension of the world. Moreover, they are available wherever I can carry my computer and get an internet connection. In the recent past, a small part of these resources were available at libraries, but you had to physically go to a library, and you had to go when they were open. Also, libraries in small towns were and are extremely limited in the materials they can offer, while libraries in larger cities have a much more on offer. That these resources are available in libraries is a wonderful thing, but it is unfortunate that if you have the misfortune to live in a poor place, these resources are denied to you. The internet makes geography largely irrelevant to knowledge acquisition.

I can be considered partisan in this dialectic because I am an autodidact with no credentials, offering my ideas freely on the internet, writing a blog no less, with the only cost of consumption being the same threshold for anyone gaining access to the internet, whether they log on to look at pornography or to read about strategy.

So much for free resources. What is the countervailing trend? The increasing cost of knowledge is reflected in the education industry. I have discussed in many posts in this forum the rising tide of credentialism, and the expectation that those who apply for professional positions, and even those applying to deliver packages for UPS, will have a college degree. Along with inflated demands by businesses for credentials, degree inflation has followed in parallel. Worried professionals are always seeking ever more credentials so that they won’t be outflanked by the competition in the job market, and their career can continue its upward rise.

For many years the cost of higher education has outpaced the rate of inflation. I believe the only industry outside the education industry that has risen at a faster rate of increase is the health care industry. And keeping in mind that a mere bachelor’s degree is no longer considered nearly enough, anyone opting into the credential race will find themselves not only paying more for their credentials, but will find themselves paying for additional credentials. While this is very good news for the education industry and those who pass out credentials, it is a growing financial burden for those who want the credentials but who have no plans to join the education industry. I would also argue that this is bad for the economy on the whole. Education is by no means bad for the economy, but the spiraling demand for credentials is not the same as education, and it is this that is bad for the economy.

I have heard the argument made that in the intellectual environment fostered by the internet, where anything and everything is on offer, education is more important than ever, because people need to be taught how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I certainly agree that one must read the internet as critically as one reads books and newspapers, and that many people need to be taught this skill because they lack an intuitive sense of discernment, but the need to exercise critical thinking skills is not identical to holding a credential. There are a great many credulous people with degrees, who are incapable of exercising any degree of critical thinking, and the blossoming growth of the education industry has created a great many specialty education areas that are indistinguishable from indoctrination, and therefore are counter-productive to critical thinking skills. Would you like me to name names? Very well, I will offer up a soft target: the “leadership” industry. There are proliferating seminars and college courses on leadership that are little more than indoctrination in the shallow views of the instructors, who have read too many popular books on business management.

The counter-productive nature of much “higher” education suggests the possibility of an “anti-university” which would hold the education industry to account. In a sense, the student revolts of the 1960s, with their occupations of administration buildings, their “teach-ins,” and their consciousness-raising sessions, tried to do exactly that. They have become the victims of their own success. The curriculum was revamped to become more “relevant” and to offer a veritable cafeteria of options for the undergraduate to pick and choose the specialized course of education particularly suited to his or her individual tastes. This is partly (certainly not wholly) what has driven the culture of credentials that has steadily driven up the costs of education even while increasing the expectations regarding the percentage of the population that should receive higher education (or will need such a credential in order to obtain employment that can support a family).

The internet has already and will continue to make the knowledge resources of the world available to anyone with a computer and a connection. At the same time, the institutions of contemporary industrialized society will not allow anyone to make use of their knowledge without a credential testifying to their mastery of progressively smaller slices of knowledge. It is tempting to give this a Marxist formulation, since it seems that, like diamonds, as the “use value” of knowledge decreases, the “exchange value” of knowledge increases. But the Marxist distinction of use value and exchange value is a relic of the labor theory of value, which has long been supplanted by the marginalist revolution. What would a marginalist formulation look like? In so far as the education industry is an industry, a marginalist formulation would plot the demand curve against the supply curve and arrive at an equilibrium price. However, this formulation would tell us nothing as to why the demand curve has risen. For that, a different kind of inquiry is necessary.

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Note added 02 March 2011: The BBC has an interesting although irritating story about higher education, Graduates — the new measure of power. The story leads off, “At the beginning of the last century, the power of nations might have been measured in battleships and coal. In this century it’s as likely to be graduates.” I had intended in the above post to suggest graphing number of graduates against number of degrees available, average cost per student, and similar measures. The BBC story had a nice graph that showed the explosive growth in the granting of degrees. What made the story irritating was its exclusively cheerleading quality, so that all of these developments were treated as wonderful revelations, and no mention was made of any downside to the trend. Although the story appeared as a BBC business news item, no one apparently thought to mention that old staple of business, the law of supply and demand: as the supply of graduates increases, their value decreases. The exponential growth curve in education is not going to make education more valuable, but rather less valuable.

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The chart below is from the BBC story.

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Note Added 12.17.2011: In regard to what I wrote above about the film Going the Distance, I have just watched the film Contagion, which has an even more negative portrayal of blogging. In this film — which otherwise was excellent — the blogger character played by Jude Law was self-righteous, self-deluded, dishonest, disingenuous, greedy, and personally vicious. The character had no redeeming features whatsoever. This is a perfect example of a “two dimensional” character.

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