Universal Knowledge

Universal Knowledge

While hiking to Bachalpsee, I had a brief moment on the trail to jot down through dictation a few thoughts that were occupying my mind. Fleshing it out a bit post trip, here’s what I was pondering on those Alpen slopes (interspersed with more images from the alps – albeit with no other correlation to the writings around them.)

One mind exercise I find fascinating is to take an active high level new societal state of mind and then attempting to step out of that state and look at it from a lifetime or even multi-century perspective, and attempt to assess whether it is a temporary blip, or part of a gradual curve, a true stair-step change, or not even worthy of any attention. For instance, I think of the breakdown in our political systems right now, and wonder – is it really worse than what was happening forty years ago during the civil rights era? Is the gridlock, balkanization and divisiveness any worse than any other randomly picked 30 year low over the course of the American experiment? I find that stepping out of the “local maximum” from a societal level is exceedingly difficult, as we are so shaped by the times we live in.

One variant of that mind exercise of stepping out of your generational societal influence is in understanding the impact of technology in our daily lives today. Technological advances have a funny way of being so minor and almost inconsequential in the day to day, but yet broadly are monumental. For instance, many baby boomers will speak of technology as slowing in recent decades in comparison to their youth, but as Bostrom (and Wait but Why) will point out, it is very likely the opposite. (By the way, enjoy that link).

One subtle way in which technology has changed our lives subtly, is the access to knowledge. Right now, via your phone, you can google almost any topic or question and get your answer within seconds, if not a few minutes. You can get this knowledge anywhere. And it is not just you, its a vast portion of the human race – and easy to surmise it will be >80% of the human race within a few years.

This observation seems logical and obvious, particularly for anyone under 30. My stories of having to go to a library in  my high school years and to spend an hour to find the address to Coca Cola’s headquarters so that I could write them a letter delivered by the U.S. Post Office sounds downright archaic. But that was how it was just a “few” years ago. Now, I’m in the remote Alps on a hike and can find an email address and send an email in just a minute right from the trail.

You can’t deny that this universality represents the demarcation line to a new era in the human race – a demarcation that is equal to the combustion engine for the industrial age or the printing press to the Renaissance.

So think – anyone can access any knowledge from anywhere. All knowledge is universal. No person needs to struggle with not having the answer to something that is already known, given sufficient education to understand the answer (an education which also is freely available).

So what are the real ramifications of this universality of knowledge? Given this change, what can we predict about the future?

There are the obvious ramifications:

  • Technological advancement will only accelerate faster. Specialization can occur faster. But also the grand breakthroughs that come from combining conceptsacross disciplines will become easier.
  • Educational systems – especially post high school – will increasingly struggle to be relevant
  • Geopolitical borders will be increasingly irrelevant. The anti-free trade nonsense is seriously traveling upstream against the tide of inevitability, if due to knowledge alone. To be on the cutting edge of any technology only depends on the quality of your internet connection.
  • The rise of AI is increasingly a certainty.
  • Wikipedia will rule, even more than now. Invest in it, if only it had stock.
  • Economic freedom based on genetic (or environmental) drive to succeed will increasingly take over – the American dream will be global – but likewise, for those unwilling to work or those unable to learn, they will be increasingly demarginalized. In theory wealth should spread to those 80% nouveau rich who have drive to make use of knowledge, and not the old school self sustaining rich.
  • Employees will increasingly be compensated based on drive and not knowledge,as the later is now free.
  • For those seeking original thought, they will be forced further up the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Domain. They will have to hang out in the top synthesis level, as the internet will increasingly be filling out all of the lower levels (at least until we hit the AI tripwire). They will have to seek out higher levels of connections of abstract reasonings.
  • Queries on data will become universal, allowing every biological, medical, psychological case study to be performed. Think of how google can track flu epidemics by tracing search queries geographically. Now, just envision google creating a economic or psychological profile of you based on your searches – then imagine how many psychological experiments can be done already using similar techniques as the flu one, but mapped to difference social, economic or psychological status. What if Google had your decoded DNA, your shopping habits from Amazon and your social media stream – and everyone else’s – the wealth of medical research that can be done instantly is insanely huge. This can almost all be technologically feasible today, the barriers are mostly societal from privacy issues. (And the internet has proved it self to be indefatigable against privacy concerns – data always wins in the end).
  • The human mind’s long term memory functions might substantially decay, as knowledge is so quickly re-attainable. Because of the plasticity of the human brain, this may be a biologically measurable change – and a change that could occur within the millennial’s lifetime.

Those are the easy ones… I know there are other equally obvious ramifications just our of reach, but only with hindsight. If only I could really rack my brain as to what they may be… I pondered this in my brief moment of quiet on the path today…  only to have my youngest just now fall headfirst into the water and let out a fantastic yell. No more of such musings now!

One Reply to “Universal Knowledge”

  1. Interesting post, beautiful pictures, insightful thoughts. Although I disagree with the premise that some how we have, or are approaching universal knowledge. Sure, we have access to information like never before in human history. I certainly do not mean to belittle that achievement. But I don’t think this access counts as knowledge. I can find the answer on Wikipedia does not equate to I know the answer. In fact, it equates to just the opposite; “I don’t know but I can find” still means “I don’t know.” On top of that there are still informational asymmetries everywhere. We most “experts” make a living off of leveraging these uneven distributions of knowledge. But really what I disagree with is the idea that all things which are written down can be learned. Deep knowledge of a subject I believe is only obtainable though experience. And you may think, “well okay, so what does that have to do with my blog post?” Well, I’ll provide an example. Lets consider a sufficiently complex technical system, say a motorcycle or a web server. This machine may be documented extensively and that documentation may be freely available and easy to find. Now the question is, “is near instantaneous access to that body of knowledge the same thing as knowing the machine inside and out from having worked on it directly?” My answer would be no and here’s why. Because if you were asked a question about that machine you would not be queering your mind, you would be queering a database. “Well isn’t the mind just a sort of biological database?” you might say. And I would say no. I think the mind is a fundamentally different kind of thing. I can write down what I know about an engine or a computer only to an extent. No matter how well I write, that documentation is always going lack the first person knowledge of that technical system. So how does this tie back to your points? Well, I believe that what we have here with the world wide web (in the context of informational content), while amazing and wonderful, is nothing more than a high speed library (with slightly more cat pictures of course). Thus it will never be a substitute for real human knowledge. While the internet is amazing, the human mind is yet even more amazing!

    Thank you for writing this blog entry and I apologize for ballooning it with my rant of a comment. I hope my criticism’s don’t come off as rude. I’m only interested in string the conversation up. Also thank you for helping me to find that “Wait But Why” article again. I came across that a few years ago, read it, loved it, and then promptly lost it. Have a good day!

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