Monday, March 5, 2018

Knowledge Use Doesn't Have to Be "Totalitarian"

Are the recent societal impulses towards "creeping" authoritarianism, inevitable? For instance, one can only hope that 21st century knowledge use might eventually break free of its present rigid modes. Otherwise, the arbitrary limits to knowledge use which translate into limits to growth, could mean a return to the limits of closed societies as well.

Like Scott Sumner, I'm of an age when many of us took for granted the intellectual gains which resulted from the wars and struggles of the twentieth century. How many of those gains are being lost? Life already feels quite different than it did at the turn of the century. In a recent Econlog post, Sumner highlighted an article from The Economist which explores "agency" as a contributor to today's growing nationalism. From the article:
The new nationalism does not just insist on the difference between countries, it also thrives on the anger within them...Men and women lacking in, or deprived of, agency look to nationalism to assure them that, in their own way, they are as good as everyone else--better, even. It is just that the world does not give them the respect they deserve. They are quick to identify with those they see as on their side and to show contempt for others...At the same time they are obsessed by how others see them.
One only need consider the environments of our schools, which due to the limits of knowledge use in society, can inadvertently designate students as winners and losers in terms of the economic access which matters most. And the schools of our youth are only the beginning of this process. Presently, too few individuals are expected to work with vital aspects of knowledge in their communities - oftentimes, knowledge which determines much of the quality of life for everyone else.

Knowledge use can become totalitarian, when specific skills sets are assigned to certain individuals and denied to others. When we permit a full range of skill application solely according to meritocracy, eventually those who are fortunate enough to be included end up in a bubble, surrounded by millions who have been left out of so many vital economic processes, they are no longer able to fully function or assist one another. When we allow our governments to legislate away the freedom of knowledge use, thereby limiting employment possibilities at home, citizens inevitably become less inclined to keep an open mind re the free markets of tradable sector activities between nations.

It is not necessary to keep using knowledge as societal means to separate the "winners" from the "losers". We have important reasons not to do so, since automation now produces so many of our goods. After all, services options are the logical next step for 21st workplaces, but we have yet to build local environments which would even make mutual coordination possible, for services generation. Meanwhile, knowledge use as mostly hierarchical systems, needlessly grinds human initiative into the dust. Let's find means by which the use of knowledge need not be totalitarian, so that the political and social uncertainties of our time can finally be addressed.

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