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The state of knowledge

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As a world-recognized leader in The Having of Opinions and the holder of a Ph.D. in Never Being Wrong, which was, ironically, awarded by mistake, I know you are eager to hear my thoughts on the current state of knowledge, an address I give four times a century.

Ahem, ahem, pardon me while I take a sip of this rare water imported directly from the Mountain of Self-Importance. Ah, that’s better.

Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary friends, I am pleased to say that the state of knowledge is stronger than it has ever been in human history. And, also far worse in important ways.

The openness of knowledge

The quantity of knowledge is clearly greater than ever. We know the inner secrets of things that just a few years ago we didn’t know had secrets. Science advances ever faster, exploring domains ever further from us in distance, size, and type. But beyond that, knowledge is now held together by a web of unimaginable size and openness. Click, click, click and you’re in the middle of an argument about quantum absurdities that are nevertheless real, or about Algeria’s politics, Nabokov’s butterflies, or Justin Bieber’s early haircuts. There is almost no knowledge that you can’t explore through miniscule clicks of your index finger. The web is a magic map that will take us wherever we want to go with the smallest exertion imaginable.

Access to all that knowledge has scaled up faster than even the early web optimists imagined. Do you remember that there was a time when Wikipedia seemed implausible? But there is, of course, a price to pay—for knowledge is available at this scale because there are no hurdles to posting information. Without  editors or curators, we are left to decide on the reliability of what we encounter. For the past 25 years we’ve seen what happens when crowds fill in the void left by authorities.

The socializing of knowledge

And what we’ve seen is that it works pretty well. For one thing, the previous authorities lived within a comfortable, old white boy network that for 2,500 years has been an instrument of power. Now, we hear so many different voices offering so many perspectives from so many cultures and life experiences.

Of course, such a deep and complicated transition has caused some chaos, in part because those whose power and privilege are being overthrown are fighting back in desperation.

At the same time, we have firmly and irrevocably confirmed that we are an incredibly curious species. There is nothing so drab that it can’t turn around and show us just how fascinating it actually is. That is one of the greatest lessons of the web. And we have definitively shown that we now consider knowledge to be a public good. The new norm is for us to learn in public and to share what we have learned.

But because everything has its shadow, we also see a failure to distinguish seeking knowledge and trying to be interesting. Knowing now occurs in an attention economy in which one succeeds by having a “take” on everything—disposable blurbs that lack the commitment implicit in even an opinion. Takes can be amusing, and no harm done, but they become an affliction when they lead us away from thought and knowledge.

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