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What’s wrong with being right?

This article appears in the issue March 2008 (100 Companies) [Volume 17, Issue 3]

Education. Government. Media. Business. Science.

That’s the Jeopardy answer to the question, "What are five institutions whose value comes to a large degree from providing authoritative knowledge?"

There’s nothing wrong with being right. Being right is almost always preferable to being wrong, although you might not believe it if you only had governments and polling companies as your evidence.

But, if you’re an institution, there are some problems with going beyond being right to being an authority. If your business model depends on being perceived as right because you are who you are, you are heading into hard times.

First, knowledge is becoming commoditized. You know how at meetings and conferences these days, people will be typing away at their laptops even as people are talking? Rude? Probably. But get used to it. If you step back from the table and watch what people are actually doing, you’ll likely see a disturbing percentage doing e-mail or browsing eBay. But some healthy percentage is probably googling terms and concepts. The ones poking around at Google and Wikipedia are in fact illustrations of what a world in which knowledge has been commoditized is like. We used to be able to look up the definition of a word or the capital of a state. Now we can easily scoop up knowledge a step or two up from that: Get some background on a piece of legislation, read a quick history of the part of the world being discussed, check the biography of someone mentioned in passing. Just as almanacs commoditized facts, the Web is commoditizing knowledge. Knowledge still has value, but not as much as it once did. It’s just like digital watches: The fact that they’re now so cheap means we’ve gotten more accurate in our timekeeping (although it’s arguable that we’ve gotten any more punctual). The commoditization of knowledge is bad news for institutions in the knowledge provisioning business, but it’s great news for the species.

Truth & understanding

Second, authoritative knowledge sounds neutral but is always political. No matter how high-minded the institution, no matter how hard it works to achieve a neutral and objective point of view, authoritative knowledge presents the world one way, and that one way expresses a point of view. Now, having a point of view doesn’t make the knowledge wrong or valueless. But insofar as being an authoritative institution means denying that a point of view has snuck into its work, being authoritative actually gets in the way of truth.

Third, stamping knowledge as authoritative decreases our information. Authorizing knowledge of course (ideally) excludes wrong ideas and incorrect information, which is a good thing, but because knowledge always has a point of view, authoritative knowledge’s implicit "And that’s the way it is" dismisses other points of view and lines of thought. Those other points of view are information we might need. Stamping knowledge as authoritative can also stamp out useful controversies and differences.

Fourth, authoritative knowledge doesn’t take us far enough down the path to understanding. Knowledge certainly contributes to understanding. Understanding based on falsehoods is very likely wrong and possibly dangerously so. But understanding based simply on certified knowledge can be timid, circumscribed and of less value than understanding that stretches beyond the safe zone of authorized knowledge.

Knowledge & negotiation

Fifth, authoritative knowledge gets its metaphysics wrong. It thinks knowledge is a reflection of the world that can be refined and bottled. It thinks knowledge can be done. It thinks it can be transferred from head to head. In fact, we’re learning for sure what the theorists have been saying for a generation: Knowledge is a negotiation, an agreement, something that is between us, something that is never done, something that reflects our interests and starting point as much as it reflects the way the world is.

None of this means that knowledge is worthless or knowledge is doomed. We need knowledge more than ever, and we need more of it than ever. We certainly sometimes need it certified by institutions we can rely on. But the institutional authority of knowledge is becoming less and less valuable, and in some instances actually gets in the way of both knowledge and understanding.


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