Where now for the Knowledge Economy?
The UK makes a lot of its place in the knowledge economy, at times seemingly relying on it to drive us out of recession and back to growth. And we have been previously successful in this - the recent sale of Autonomy to HP provides commercial evidence for this.
But will this continue? Does the Knowledge Economy have such a bright future?
I was reading a range of material on the internet earlier, including this post about cycling infrastructure guru David Hembrow who has stopped writing his influential blog.
He makes a number of good points about why he is stopping, ranging from the fact that he is often misquoted, or his work used without credit, either textual or financial. Some outlets have even been editing out the watermarks in his photos to reuse them, which is hardly accidental, even if the other activities were.
One phrase stood out, however. He says
"These days, knowledge has no value."
He was referring to that fact that things are worth what people will pay for them - and people were refusing to pay him anything. But he has touched on a wider point.
The publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica know what he means. I don't imagine anyone buys this once-iconic bound set of volumes anymore - not because knowledge is not useful, but because it is now available for free on the internet on Wikipedia. And this is true for much of what we used to view as knowledge. The capital of Buhtan? Google tells me that it's Thimphu - and that it's Bhutan, not Buhtan, but it doesn't mind me making the mistake. Heaviest naturally occurring element? Uranium (U) (atomic number 92), courtesy of wiki.answers.com. Highest paid entertainer? Tyler Perry ($130 million). And so it goes on - facts are easy to come by, but so is opinion, perspective and suchlike.
Social software takes this on into different topics. For things that are hard to ask Google, our social networks are a useful resource. "How do I get toddler Peter to eat his greens" elicits responses from parents who have had toddlers and who maybe even know Peter to reply. This collective intelligence has its moments of daftness and absurdity, but that makes it engaging and entertaining as well as informative, ensuring we continue.
So it's harder to make the case that knowledge is valuable, when it's out there simply for the asking - computer systems link us to people who know what we need to and will give it to us for free. This has been revolutionary, and continues to be - but the flipside is that as we become basically competent at utilising these resources, the 'knowledge economy' starts to slip away. It was fine when it was about devising the necessary software and infrastructure - fine when we passed on knowledge of how to use these tools to others - but now most can use them and the systems are widely and freely available, where does the value add come from?
One answer is from creativity. "Draw me a meaningful portrait" is not something Google is much help with. "Take an emotionally moving photograph of my children" elicits little response from online picture agencies. Perhaps the Creative Economy is where we need to focus our thoughts and efforts. But we're in trouble here - we're still struggling to come up with decent economic models for creative works in this new digital age: piracy, copyright infringement, and simple theft are easy and commonplace. Copyleft agreements, creative commons licences and other constructions are starting to develop meaningful traction in the space, but they don't tend to work when there are strong commercial considerations. The knowledge economy has created tools that are seeds of its own destruction - and possibly of other trends that may have followed it. It's a major problem that we need to solve - and yet most people aren't even aware of it as an issue.