Knowledge Is Produced to be Sold
Throughout our history, people have pretty much assumed that knowledge has some kind of intrinsic value. Schools and universities have developed to pass on our acquired knowledge and to find out yet more things. However, in 1979, philosopher Jean-François Lyotard turned that idea on its head and said that knowledge is a product to be sold.
Lyotard was born in 1924 in Versailles, France. After graduating, he taught philosophy in France and Algeria. It was in the 1950s that he became involved in radical left-wing politics. He later taught in many countries, including the U.S. and France, and died of leukemia in 1998. It was his 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” that produced his radical idea about knowledge.
He used the word postmodern to refer to an “incredulity towards meta-narratives.” What he meant by meta-narratives are overarching, single stories that attempt to sum up the whole of human history or that attempt to put all of our knowledge into a single framework. This, perhaps, makes more sense if you realize that he’d just fallen out of love with Marxism, which views human history as being a series of struggles between social classes—i.e., a meta-narrative.
Lyotard went on to say that our scepticism about these meta-narratives was due to a shift in the way we viewed knowledge since World War II, and the change in technologies we use to deal with it. He thought that computers had changed our attitude towards knowledge because now it was just information that could be stored in a database. Once there, it could be moved as necessary, and it could then be bought and sold. And that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable idea, does it?
Lyotard suggested that knowledge was becoming externalized and that it no longer helped towards the development of human minds. More philosophically, he thought knowledge was becoming separated from questions about truth. Knowledge isn’t judged on how true it is, but on how well it serves certain ends. He concluded that knowledge had become a commodity because it can be sold.
He warned that private corporations could start to control the flow of knowledge and decide who can access what types of knowledge, and when. You might argue that nearly 40 years later that this isn’t the case and that Wikipedia and the various search engines make knowledge more available to people than ever before. No after-dinner argument goes on for long without someone getting out a phone and searching the Internet for the answer.
Certainly, U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden has indicated just how much information governments are collecting and analyzing about our communications over the Internet. It’s suggested that they are using ‘traffic analysis’ to prediction the behavior of individuals—i.e., they're not looking at the contents of individual’s emails, but by looking at the patterns of communication.
You may feel Big Data is being sourced from the Internet of Things, is owned by large corporations (or even government agencies) and access to it is restricted insofar as they decide who can access the data and when. You might also suggest that there is more false information out there. People are regularly posting urban myths as fact on Facebook and other sites and warning readers to avoid that particular bogus trap.
Or you may feel that the technology has moved on so much since 1979 that anyone making a dystopian prediction then can’t possibly allow for all the changes that have taken place in the intervening years. Or you may have a different view altogether.
But, whatever your view, we’ve all experienced information about us being sold from one company to another so that they can try to sell us stuff we probably didn’t want; that knowledge about us has been commoditized, as Lyotard predicted. And it probably is true that in general people know less than they did in years gone by because now all they need to know is how to access that knowledge.
Makes you think!
Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, an IT consultancy. A popular speaker and blogger, he currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups. He’s editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook, and for many years edited Xephon’s Update publications.