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Authority as a market

This article appears in the issue April 2010 [Volume 19, Issue 4]
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I usually think of the change in the authority of knowledge in terms of a developing ecology. Now I think there’s utility in thinking of it as a market.

Traditionally, we’ve thought that knowledge is a reflection of reality, and reality is what it is and is not what it’s not. So, we’ve assumed that something is knowledge or it’s not. The exclusivity of that club of truths was a big part of its value. It was hard to get into the Collection of Truths, and membership was binary: You were either true or not, in or out.

Membership to the club required endorsement by the appropriate authorities. We can’t all go around re-establishing the truth of what has been admitted, so we needed processes by which we could be sure that only the truth made it onto the club roles. So, we established a system of authorities. It is a complex system, but in general it has relied upon a set of reputations, and a set of credentials: Oxford University has a high reputation, and your degree certifies that you can be presumed to share in that reputation. No one thinks the system is perfect, but it generally works well enough—where “well enough” depends upon the requirements of each particular realm of knowledge. “Well enough” is one thing for art criticism and another for bridge engineering. But, no matter how much we may argue about the requirements for some particular area of knowledge, we have generally agreed on the system’s goal of establishing (as far as is humanly possible) a realm of truths.

Filling niches

Now we seem to be embracing the value of a more diverse ecology in which we have not only the traditional club of knowledge, but also see value in filling up the niches. So, it’s valuable to have sites that put forward not just the Truths of the Club, but also: mere ideas, hunches, uncleaned up data, first drafts, notes toward a first draft, speculations, hypotheses and wrong guesses ... so long as in each case the quality of knowledge is made explicit. For one thing, having these niches available speeds up our mental metabolism. We can try out more ideas, go wrong faster and try another approach, all before the Truths have finished filling out their application forms for the Club.

Thinking about this as an ecology has its advantages. It makes it seem like a more natural situation than the old club idea. It also implies that there is some interaction among the elements that provides value. This helps to keep us from despairing about the lower quality of many of the occupants of the niches: Individually, they are not as credible as the old club of truths, but we should be considering the effect on the entire system of niches.

But, the ecology metaphor suffers from the limitations of all metaphors. Metaphors are never entirely apt, or else they’re not metaphors but statements of identity. The ecology metaphor is too placid. It sounds as if the structure of knowledge is something that just happens, rather than the result of complex interactions among individuals, institutions and cultures.

So, we could think about knowledge as a marketplace, in which authorities flog their goods.

In the old days, there was a near monopoly on knowledge. The institutions offering authoritative knowledge competed with one another, but they were fairly homogeneous in the how and who of knowledge. It was like a town in which there were plenty of clothing stores, but they all only sold tuxedos. (Yes, another metaphor. Sorry.)

Stiff competition

Now there is a vibrant marketplace for knowledge, and authorities have to compete with Target, the mom and pop store down the street, the outlet shops, the used clothing store, the vintage store, the homemade clothing store and the Good Will. Customers determine the balance of their needs and the goods’ costs: How certain? How widely accepted? What degree of accuracy? How important? How hard would it be to obtain some other way?

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