Following the knowledge flow
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #74

Traditional flexible forms of agriculture were all about the efficient use of a limited resource - land - matched with the changing opportunities of the seasons. Flexibility in industry has come to mean the efficient movement of capital, as the users of monetary resources compete for investment. Flexibility in the knowledge economy involves an effectively unlimited resource - knowledge itself keeps increasing - and seeks to collate and structure it to match changing needs and opportunities.

Efficient use of land for the purpose of producing food has little to do directly with monetary capital - which may often be more profitably invested elsewhere, although perhaps ruining the harvest. Similarly, the efficient flow of knowledge is not necessarily implicit in the efficient flow of monetary capital. This is partly because of the contrast between limited capital and relatively unlimited knowledge resources. The flow of knowledge tends to surprise, with frequent spontaneous events. While monetary capital generally follows existing or expected demand, the knowledge flux creates new products and generates unexpected demand. Knowledge does not inherently aim towards anything but more knowledge - the practical side of this fifth dimension is, as such, an adjunct, however important. This doesn't mean the natural flow of knowledge is largely useless - most certainly not.

There are innumerable examples from the world of pure research of theoretical innovations that had no original purpose but mathematical simplicity or an improved model of the universe - and eventually realised space exploration or microprocessors. The free flow of diverse knowledge is responsible for much of this spontaneous supply-before-demand. A whole new field of study was created last year when mathematics met molecular biology in the laboratory and - as if by mistake - introduced the possibility of huge computers based on DNA molecules. More down to earth, the attempts of European nuclear scientists to organise their data led to the immensely popular World Wide Web, for which no one had predicted such a demand.

Knowledge behaves differently because it is basically limitless. It is the result of interaction between its creators, so it grows exponentially. For it to best do so, its social and economic infrastructure has to evolve a kind of flexibility that current modes of organisation do not support.

For a flexible knowledge flow, everyone should have access to the right resources. Not just to those that capital has judged right, and included within the same corporation, but the right resources wherever they may be. If this were to happen it would, of course, reduce the role of corporations. Instead would form global knowledge exchanges modeled on similarly flexible markets for conventional capital, as described in a previous column. Knowledge brokers would scout for the best bargains - in terms of their conceptual value, and relevance to their existing knowledge resources - in an abundance of choice. They would need money to implement the new knowledge products they generate - and capital could follow, rushing in as and when required, without expecting to find any permanent structures in as dynamic resource as knowledge.

Much of the knowledge flux remains local - it belongs in the exchange of similar knowledge, between similar sources. This is the sort of circular flow that benefits from informal systems of trade, where the exchange is not inconvenienced by accounting. Corporations are not built around this circular flow of knowledge resources but around a hierarchy linking dissimilar knowledge - so they involve informal trade, where it is not needed.

More suited may be professional associations or guilds, which group similar resources in informal trading systems. They would ease the circular flow of knowledge, but not preclude other transactions, somewhat less frequent and perhaps more formal, between disparate knowledge sources.

Whether, and when, the decline of corporations takes place, is debatable; what is crucial is that guilds and knowledge exchanges may provide an organisational alternative closer to the real flow of knowledge. And this is a flow that promises to form a very turbulent layer over the comparatively placid monetary capital of the industrial age.

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