Go With the Flow

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

NOTE: In a small place such as Vanuatu, it often happens that one has to wear a number of different hats. I work as an IT consultant, offering advice and information to clients in the private, public and civil society sectors. I am also a writer and photographer. I volunteer some of my time to help with local IT projects, and I serve as interim secretary of the Vanuatu IT Users Society. This column is written under those auspices, but from time to time my professional work bleeds into the area of advocacy and awareness-raising. In cases where I have a professional involvement or interest in a particular issue, I will make that clear within the text of the column.

No writer is free from bias. This is especially true of columnists. While I make every effort to ensure that any facts and statements appearing in this space are properly corroborated, I reserve the right to interpret them according to my own experience, judgement and insight. It’s my job to have an opinion. Unless I state otherwise, the views expressed here are my own.

Knowledge is power.

Everyone knows that expression, and many of us have to grapple with its practical implications every day. When we’re tracking down the person who knows how a particular thing works, digging through arcane data in order to become the person who knows, or whether we’re trying to pry special knowledge loose from a reluctant source, we find ourselves operating in an economy of scarcity.

When we trade in knowledge, we also rely on its scarcity to determine its value. If we have a juicy piece of gossip about someone, we don’t tell it to everyone and their dog. Instead, we parse our words and choose our confidants carefully, sometimes teasing them with partial revelation.

Let’s reformulate that initial statement, then:

Scarce knowledge is power.

If we follow the logic of that sentence, we are prone to conclude that widespread knowledge is therefore valueless. In the cash economy, if there’s too much money floating around, we experience inflation. Dollars lose their value because everyone has them. This has led some barstool philosophers to conclude that opinions, too, are of little value because ‘everyone’s got one.’

So why do we value some opinions over others? Well, if we work within the exclusive realm of an economy of scarcity – in a situation, for example, where access to certain kinds of information is limited to a privileged few – then it stands to reason that an expert’s opinion is of more value than a lay-person’s.

That’s why we spend time every Sunday listening to our pastor or priest. If he’s doing his job properly, he’s sharing the wealth of his theological study and understanding with us. In effect, we’re benefiting from our investment in the church by receiving the wisdom of its teaching, derived from long hours of study and contemplation of arcane and sometimes extremely complex issues.

And that leads us to another observation:

The flow of knowledge is wealth.

Isn’t this assertion fundamentally subversive to our initial premise? If scarce knowledge is power, how is it that we are all enriched when that knowledge is no longer scarce?

Throughout human history, a tension has existed between specialised and generalised knowledge. It’s not by accident that one of the first things the trade union movement did in 19th Century England was to educate the workers. An illiterate, uninformed workforce was much more susceptible to the influence of those whose privilege gave them access to information, be it political, social or factual.

One of the reasons the Paris Commune of 1871 failed was its inability to get its message out to the entire population. This allowed the government of the day to isolate and ultimately defeat them. (They also suffered because their lack of access to good information led them to draw dangerously flawed conclusions about what was best for society, and for numerous other reasons as well, but I risk turning this into a history lesson, so let’s leave it at that.)

Many people believe that the nascent Chinese pro-democracy movement was successfully crushed in Tiananmen Square within the space of a few weeks because the government of the day had nearly complete control of the national media.

If scarce knowledge is power, then, enforced ignorance is an exercise of power.

Freedom of speech, especially the right to publish ideas, has been a cornerstone of free societies for centuries expressly because it’s seen as a tool that empowers the general populace. It provides a check to the worst abuses of power.

But every free society puts limits on free speech. There are some things that we as societies just don’t want to allow. In effect, the generalised flow of certain kinds of knowledge creates information wealth for the wrong people. Seditious speech, incitements to violence or hatred and affronts to common decency are all kinds of knowledge that various societies have agreed are detrimental to the public good.

But doesn’t that contradict the assertion that the flow of knowledge is wealth? Only somewhat. The assumption here is that, like Pandora’s Box, once certain kinds of information are released to the general public, they can only be used to act against the interests of society as a whole.

There are some things we just don’t want to know. There are some things that we simply should not see. It’s easy to get lost teasing out the nuance of this statement, mostly because the values of ‘some things’ and ‘we’ vary from one example to the next.

A parent won’t introduce the concept of death to a two- or three-year-old child, because the prospect of mortality is just too overwhelming for them. Likewise, images depicting bloodshed and gore are offensive to many, adult and children alike. A doctor, on the other hand, needs to be able to quickly and accurately identify numerous different injuries. Ignorance, for them, is not an option.

But the doctor is an expert, not only because she has a wider, deeper context she can bring to bear on such images, but because she has learned how to process them and how to use that knowledge to save lives.

When we accept that the flow of knowledge is wealth, we require a different definition of expertise. Expertise is no longer someone who has privileged access to special knowledge; expertise consists of knowing how to process it, knowing what to do with it. The more such expertise is shared, the more we all benefit.

When we invest in this kind of individual expertise, it is accompanied by a covenant that the exercise of knowledge will not be abused. In order to ensure that the covenant is not abused, though, we all need to become knowledge experts.

Widespread distribution of once-scarce information and the changing nature of expertise will inevitably present some challenges to Vanuatu society. It will always be in the interests of some to limit access to certain kinds of knowledge.

This tendency needs to be resisted. No matter what we may feel about certain kinds of information, we cannot afford to act in ignorance.

Now, we as a society might decide collectively that we don’t want to access some information sources. That’s perfectly fine; every society does this. Indeed, the inflationary effect of common knowledge is negated when we pool our collective intelligence and will and apply it to a common cause. It was the universally held idea of independence, after all, that created Vanuatu in the first place.

But when we delegate access to information itself to others, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, they will inevitably come to realise that, the more they enforce scarcity on the information economy, the more their own power is reinforced.

Knowledge is power; the flow of knowledge is wealth. Both belong in the hands of society as a whole.