The Longest Now


General knowledge is social infrastructure, not commodity
Monday June 25th 2012, 10:54 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,international,meta,Uncategorized,wikipedia

For ages, learning was assumed to be social, interactive, oral. Written knowledge, where available and somewhat portable, was a specialized complement that few scholars, recordkeepers, explorers and other specialists used or needed.

As long as you needed a tutor or guide to learn, whether or not good static (lifeless) written material was available was a lesser concern.

In the last three millennia, it gradually became cheaper to produce text, commonplace for scholars to learn to write concisely and convey ideas so that others could learn them on their own. In every field, books eventually replaced ritual and oral record as the standard for precipitating knowledge into a lasting, canonical form, and passing it on. This was driven forward by personal memorials and finance and law – pillars of clan- and city-building.

Certain forms of knowledge were considered a shared good of society – from how to find resources to social and practical norms. And some were actively disseminated as necessary, such as legal and religious dictates. Other knowledge was something that could be sought out, or bought and sold. During the time when knowledge about the world was a scarce resource, yet easy enough to write down and transmit, even basic information about the shape of the planet was bartered and sold like any other good.

Today we both have bounteous knowledge, and pressing problems that better global education can address. The opportunities that could result from a more broadly educated world society are far greater than the short-term opportunities of a commodity market for practical texts.

And we will get more thorough, more accurate, and better texts of all sorts – once we think of general knowledge as a part of culture and civic infrastructure, not as something that can be owned and hoarded. We made this transition with scientific discoveries centuries ago, with mathematics before that, and today we reap tremendous benefits from that. It is time for all knowledge to join their ranks as a cornerstone of our civilization.

How can we help this come about? Take a piece of awesome, inspiring, practical knowledge that you currently buy or rent as a commodity, and make a free version of it. Publish it to a shared commons that makes it easy to maintain and update over time. Tell others who get it from the same source you did. Stop using general knowledge that you can’t repurpose, and your use of the alternative will make it the best in the world in its niche.


2 Comments so far
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I’m not sure what “general[-purpose]”, “practical”, and “essential” mean, suspect pretty context-specific. Just make it all knowledge! 🙂

Comment by Mike Linksvayer 06.26.12 @ 12:15 pm

I didn’t initially mean ‘all digital information’ : rather a specific subset of knowledge that is of widespread general use. One could make similar claims about all of knowledge, including (for instance) all art, but that’s not what I mean here. However it’s not worth overemphasizing at the expense of clarity; I’ve updated the post slightly. Thanks!

Comment by metasj 06.28.12 @ 2:15 pm



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