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The commoditization of knowledge

This article appears in the issue February 2008 [Volume 17, Issue 2]

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As we sit around the table at the academic center I’m at, most of us have our laptops open. We’ve taken to warning visitors about this. We’re not being rude, we say, we’re just engaging on multiple levels.

The truth is, of course, that sometimes we are being rude. During one particularly bad presentation recently, the back channel chat—plain old IRC—was especially biting. And funny. Even so, it served as a brake on rudeness as one of the participants wrote, "The examples he’s using are the same old ones, and he’s not even getting them straight. I don’t want to attack him personally, but I also don’t think I can let it pass entirely. What should I do?" Ah, crowd-sourcing politeness. The venting happened on the back channel, and the public conversation proceeded more constructively.

The week after the bad presentation, someone gave quite a fascinating talk. Even so, the laptops were open and the listeners were typing. As I sat back from the conference table and snuck a peek at the screens visible from my side of the room, I saw one person doing e-mail, a couple of people engaged in the back channel and two people browsing sites to discover what the speaker meant by this or by that. Throughout the talk, you could see people popping into Wikipedia, googling an acronym or pursuing a thought across the Net.

This, I thought, is what commoditized knowledge looks like.

We know what commoditized facts look like: They look like an almanac. If you know what you want, and if the facts are settled, you can just look them up. In some areas, the facts are not yet settled—Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Why was Stonehenge built?—but for most of what we need to know, the facts are commodities in that they are easily available and not of great economic value taken individually; the almanac has to cram in thousands and thousands of facts to justify its cover price.

With the Internet ubiquitous within particular domains—in your house if you have WiFi, at work, on campus, perhaps soon in your city or town—we get used to the idea that we can look up facts at any time. When access to facts is so easy, it becomes inefficient to store them internally. Hence almanacs. Hence googling as a new way of knowing things.

But, watching my colleagues looking up not facts but articles, whether at Wikipedia or elsewhere, I was watching the commoditization reach beyond facts to knowledge. The person looking up an acronym was looking up a fact, but the person skimming the Wikipedia article on the 1996 Telecommunications Act was ingesting knowledge, not just facts; she very likely wanted to understand what the Act was about, not get a list of dates and bullet points. As she read, she was nodding the nod of understanding.

She was a little bit smarter than she was before, and not just because now she had a quick sense of what that Telecommunications Act was about. The commoditization of knowledge means that she was also able to re-engage with the speaker, and better understand what he was saying. The ubiquitous availability of knowledge means we can dip into it when we need to, but we need to generally when some lack of knowledge is getting in the way of advancing our understanding. The commoditization of knowledge makes knowledge available when we need it most. It therefore is making us smarter not only because we can add to our static supply of knowledge, but because we use it dynamically when we need to sprint ahead.

There’s been too much to know for thousands of years, so we’ve externalized knowledge quite successfully. Ubiquitous access to knowledge doesn’t just make it easier to find what we collectively know. It is a game-changer for intelligence.

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