The Social Value of Knowledge Has Soared

Open CoverIn the build up to the publication of Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future’, I’ll be writing a few posts looking at some of the book’s themes. This week: knowledge.

During the 1990s a phalanx of futurologists told us that the ‘knowledge economy’ would follow the industrial economy, and we were set to clean up, because: a) we had the best universities in the world, and b) we spoke English, the universal language of knowledge. The rationale was that, in the future, knowledge would be at a premium, and could only increase in value. This was the doctrine that persuaded Tony Blair, the newly-elected UK Prime Minister in 1997, to famously state his three priorities as ‘education, education and education’.

The blind faith in knowledge, however, turned out to be misplaced. Thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, and the rapid scaling up of tertiary education in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called BRIC economies) the futurologists couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first decade of the 21st century saw the balance of power in the knowledge economy decisively swing, from the west to the east, partly due to the eternal laws of supply and demand. Having a market flooded with BRIC graduates, means that the price of knowledge has gone down, not up. These days, there is simply no point in paying $15,000 for a basic website (yes, that’s really what they used to cost). Far better to either pay $500 for an Indian IT graduate to do it for you, or if you’re prepared to teach yourself some basic web skills, get one of the free sites available online.

We all enjoy getting information at low, or no cost, but this simple illustration highlights one of the most turbulent social problems the West faces: the misalignment of professional skills to market conditions. If you are a middle-class parent reading this, consider the following statistic: of the UK graduates who left university in 2007, 28% of them were without a full-time job three years later.

Clearly, some of the increase can be attributed to rising unemployment, and in particular youth unemployment, as a result of the sluggish UK economy. But, it seems as though the old axiom that ‘learning is earning’ – that, over the course of their working lives, graduates will always earn more money than non-graduates – may no longer be the case, especially given the rising costs of attending university.

The commercial value of knowledge has plummeted. In the book, I interview Patrick McKenna, CEO of Ingenious Media, one of the most successful media investors in the world. Here’s what he had to say about their approach to knowledge:

 “We give a lot of our knowledge away, so that people will engage us to deliver some implementation of that knowledge. We tell people everything we know. We don’t have any great insights that we wouldn’t want to share with everyone, because we’re either raising investments, giving consultancy advice, or we are making investments. The only way we can sell those insights is by sharing what we know. The reason why we don’t worry about giving that knowledge away is because most people can’t implement what they know. The capital value of something these days is the ability to implement it rather than to create it originally”

If, as Patrick maintains, it’s what we do with the knowledge, rather than the knowledge itself, that has value, why are we still schooling students and training employees to absorb and regurgitate knowledge, rather than developing the skills to exploit and implement knowledge?

If the commercial value of knowledge has gone down,however,  the social value of it has soared, thanks to the opening up of the social space. The explosion of ‘pro-ams’ (people who are occupationally amateur, but with professional levels of knowledge), hobbyists, serious gamers, forum user, all points to a rising reputational value of expertise. Here’s just one example:

Devised by the University of Washington, FoldIt is a serious gaming platform that enables thousands of gamers to solve science problems specifically relating to ‘protein folding’ – predicting the shapes which amino acids will form in HIV Aids, Cancer and Alzheimer’s patients.

Zoran Popovich, one of FoldIt’s creators says that the game has shown ‘that it is possible to create experts in a particular domain purely through game play’. One of its leading players is Scott Zaccanelli, a massage therapist from Dallas, Texas. Players are ranked according to their ability to figure problems out. Zaccanelli himself plays for a couple of hours every evening and, at the time of writing, is ranked 12th in the world:

“Everybody’s got their motivations for it. Some do it for the camaraderie, others for the competition. (I’m just) happy that science is being done.”

If you’re new to video gaming, this might all seem a bit nerdy. Maybe, but you should know that one of FoldIt’s 2012’s puzzles was to identify a folded-protein structure, made by HIV monkeys, which had eluded scientists for 15 years.  Scott’s team was able to work it out in 10 days.

All over the world, millions of people are freely sharing their knowledge to solve problems, locally and globally, for no financial reward.  They do it because, frankly, it makes them feel better. Through social learning, we’ve rediscovered our better selves. The challenge for all of us is to make learning in the formal spaces – the workplace and school/college – as powerfully motivating as the learning we do socially.

We could start by rethinking our approach to knowledge.


‘Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future’ is available through Crux Publishing in October


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