Knowledge, revolution, and cotton-mill capitalism
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #80

Knowledge revolution is a catchy term, that's why it's been overused into being almost an epithet. Actually, what is happening in the world today is hardly a revolution at all. Although the shape of the world may be changing, it will not happen all at once, but over time. In the near future, there may be confusion and excitement, and even a few big changes, but anything remotely revolutionary will come much later. We should not, however, be misled by the similarities between the present and the apparent future, into examining the knowledge economy through the lens of today's industrial one.

This is especially true in our understanding to the relationship between the knowledge economy and industry, and of the impact of social, legal and political structures favouring knowledge upon society in general.

Knowledge is often treated as an extension of industry. It doesn't have any identity of its own - yes, there is all that stuff about bits rather than atoms, but then there are also industry's more familiar distinctions: between the services provided at a check-out counter and the goods being bought. Knowledge will be just another ingredient in the industrial soup, of corporations, cities, fixed jurisdiction, hierarchical government, the nation-state and, of course, money.

If all this were to change, well, then it would really be revolutionary - but not a revolution.

The period of the industrial "revolution" in England stretched over some fifty years, well into the 19th century. For an enormous length of time for a revolution, the new industrial economy was based, eventually, upon agriculture. This meant not just food, the pre-agricultural commodity that all societies must eventually depend upon. No: the huge factories and mills that were the emblem of progress and the new age, before, during, and after the introduction of mechanisation, were all dependent on the cotton crop. Without cotton, flax, wool, silk and other such raw, agricultural, materials, all the automated looms in the world would do no good.

Arguments for the continuation of industrial socio-economic organisation in a knowledge economy invariably rest upon the supposition that knowledge is useful only when applied - to industry. So an oil company networks its offices, organises its expertise, and becomes a "knowledge company". A software firm is wealthy, according to this line of reasoning, only because its products support drilling rigs. In fact, knowledge will be traded for knowledge and grow as apart from industry as the latter has grown, today, from the cotton crop.

By the time industry had become anything like what it is at present, built several layers over agriculture and apparently quite separate the social infrastructure of capitalism was already in place. Labour and capital swarmed to the cities; informal liberties were replaced by formalised rights and new forms of punishment; the distributed power of local councils or parishes was subverted by the strengthened central authority of the nation-state. It was only then that the railway, not the mill, became was the emblem of the times. It took even longer for the arrival of the car, symbol of purely industrial production where the train was one of transport.

The impact of this social infrastructure was much wider than the domain of industry itself, extending into everyone's lives and even to whatever agricultural economy remained. The impact of the knowledge "revolution" could be just as universal.

The social infrastructure brought by knowledge, of decentralised power and informal systems of justice and trade, cannot be expected to materialise immediately. But that change is slow cannot be taken to mean it is not happening. Knowledge is at least as revolutionary a socio- economic force as was industry. And it will result in great changes equally gradual.

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