Knowledge for Sale

It is common enough now to hear people talking about "The Knowledge Industry", "The Knowledge Society" and even the "Knowledge Age". What are the kind of phenomena which are brought to mind by these phrases?

For young people, the prospect of a job in the knowledge industry, adding value to useless products with manipulative advertisements or debugging programs affected by the y2k bug, may seem relatively attractive alongside the alternative prospects of humping bales, tending machinery or serving customers, but many people find the implications of this development disquieting.

The basic reason for the disquiet is that it is not a question of there being a lot of knowledge-production, but the fact that knowledge-production is now an "industry", that is, knowledge is becoming something which is bought and sold on the market, something which has value.

The significance of this point should not be underestimated. For example, there has always been women's labour; women have always worked - indeed, in earlier times it seems that women have consistently worked harder and longer than their male fellows; but when, a few decades ago, women's labour started to carried out in the labour market [not only the service industries, but white goods manufacture, food processing and the footwear, clothing and textile industries all with predominantly female labour forces, directly replacing the labour of the same women in the home], when women's labour became valued, rather than something tendered within relations of domestic servitude, then enormous social upheavals followed. The penetration of the value-relation into societies hitherto either isolated, trading products rather than their labour, or simply plundered, has also consistently led to great social upheaval.

There is good reason to believe then, that the commodification of knowledge is leading to major social change and upheaval. The most significant aspect of this danger is that while accumulated knowledge has grown to a frightening level, seemingly without limit, the capacity to live humanly has not grown in proportion. A world in which people know how to manipulate genes, how to destroy whole species before breakfast or unleash the power of the Sun, but has not worked out how to conserve Nature or work cooperatively is in dire trouble; it is like a 3-year-old in the body of a Mike Tyson.

Also, like all historically earlier attempts to deal with the onset of a social change, those trying to modify or resist this tendency get the distinct feeling that they are building sand-castles against the in-coming tide.

At a meeting of all staff at the University of Melbourne last year, to announce the formation of Melbourne University Private, Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert challenged anyone in the audience to offer an alternative strategy to avoid the University losing jobs, given unremitting decline in public funding. Despite heroic protest - more directed at the government than the University - the response was essentially silence. As an enterprise bargainer for University of Melbourne staff, I feel that I have a responsibility to explore the roots of this crisis. In the short term, I have to defend the interests of those I represent as best I can; but this is ultimately impossible without probing the roots of this seemingly irresistible drive to smash up every single human relationship right down to turning the products of the brain into tradeable commodities.

Let me put it this way: it is a kind of cliché that people of the future will look back on us and think how primitive we were, meaning that in future people will know a lot more than we do now, just as we know so much more than our forebears, and that technology will likewise be streets ahead of today's. It seems obvious that knowledge will just grow and grow. I think this is a mistake. If future generations are lucky enough to get born at all, they will look back on our age and think how disorganised, self-centred, brutal, inhuman, heartless and, may I say - unethical, we were.

The present, so-called "knowledge age" is but the last stage of a four-hundred year long period in which the theory of knowledge has supplanted ethics. The period, prepared by the Protestant Reformation, but beginning in about 1600 with the Copernican Revolution - the "bourgeois epoch" - is a period in which the essence of philosophy has been epistemology, the theory of knowledge. For a period of about 240 years, the greatest thinkers of the Western world struggled to understand the relationship between human needs and human labour through this kind of "secular religion". At first, simply for the right to enquire into the origins and validity of knowledge at all, then on the relative weight of Reason and Experience and so on, culminating classical German philosophy which worked out in the idealised form of an elaborate theory of knowledge that human beings produce not only the means of satisfying their needs, but produce their needs themselves, thus resolving the problem which had perplexed the sceptics, of how human labour is able to go beyond human needs. This conception was achieved in the wake of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which provided in a systematic way for the first time, an "objective" theory of value. It was in that long-ago era that the great Universities of Europe were founded, institutionalising the division of labour which produced the people who sweated over the human condition in this strange "metaphysical" mode of thinking.

Just as religious dogma had proved an inadequate vehicle for the progress of culture in the seventeenth century, so this "metaphysical" speculation proved inadequate for the further development of culture. Especially in the wake of what the historians of economics call the "marginal revolution", circa 1871, in which the twentieth century concept of value as the outcome of the interaction of the marginal utility of commodities in the minds of buyer and seller, that Universities found themselves being transformed from centres of classical learning to producers of specialists in umpteen branches of science. People attempted to resolve the problem of the human condition by putting the sense-organs, the nerve-fibres and the mind under the microscope and analysing it into a million parts, each the province a specialised branch of natural science.

Totally dismayed at the outcome of their own efforts, with the production of physical theories which defied imagination if not reason, and a psychology which scandalised the civilised world, the expansion of laissez faire capitalism seemed to have exhausted itself, and Europe disappeared into the mælstrom of the Great War, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression.

The outcome of the crisis led to the discovery that there is no limit below which a human being cannot be brought, but that the development of science and economy can be managed. Likewise it was worked out in detail that desires could be produced and managed with the same efficiency with which the means of their satisfaction could be produced. The cynicism with which the failure of this project was met in the late 1960s has ushered in the present period in which all connection between knowledge and human needs has been lost. The further development of the division of labour was now increasingly tending to transform Universities into advanced technical schools preparing the youth for employment and in servicing the technical needs of industry.

I contend that throughout this whole development the theory of value constitutes one thread connecting the most general conceptions of culture to the grubby business of making a living. Attempts in recent decades, notably coming from the environmental movement, to cure the illness by convincing government statisticians to calculate aggregate values differently, would only exacerbate the problem, were it not totally Utopian. Conceptions of value can only be changed by changing the way people live, and that is above all an ethical issue.

At each stage in the development of Western economic life, knowledge has changed. People get to know the world through their relation to other people and in particular through their acquisition of the material and cultural products of society. The transmission of knowledge is itself a technical accomplishment of society at each point in its development. The spoken word is the original immediate actuality of knowledge and is ever present. At an early stage in the emergence of civilisation, writing becomes a carrier of knowledge across distance and generations but the capacity of knowledge to circulate is very restricted. From 1450, the printing press brings knowledge into the sphere of circulation; infinitely reproducible the printed word develops, notably the leap into the industrial era with the invention of the platen press in 1811, as the dominant material form of knowledge; the broadcast media of the 20th century bring about a kind of saturation of culture with the dominant norms, and in more recent time the emergence of digital media, again radically transform the form of knowledge, at first in the form of information but increasingly structuring the form of knowledge itself.

Profound as is this technical form of knowledge in its shaping of knowledge, the same gradual developments in the economy manifest themselves in gradual changes in the form of value, which is the most "distilled" extract of the collective labour of a society which itself is the necessary precondition for the advancement of the technical means of living.

With these changes in knowledge, the Universities have changed. The current position, as is now well-recognised, is that knowledge itself has become the ultimate bearer and form of value. However, the microscope of academic analysis seems to have dissolved any possibility of any manner of holistic conception. The Faculties of Fastbuckery now market degrees as an export commodity and Universities model themselves organisationally and ideologically on commercial corporations.

I think this situation represents an enormous challenge to academics. It is very tempting to be part of the business of accumulating value through intellectual property, of turning one's knowledge into a form in which it can best be marketed and sold in multiple copies. Unfortunately, all the signs are that Bill Gates and Walt Disney Inc. are going to be much better at this game than any University in the world. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" is a strategy just about as likely to succeed for Universities as it has succeeded for Indonesia. Not that Universities are not better at producing knowledge - far from it, but the best dramatists and the best storytellers don't make many movies either. Producing knowledge is not the issue. The issue is the capacity to trade in knowledge.

Academics are very sensitive about their intellectual property, and they are nervous about the application of the Internet to higher education. And for good reason. There may be a lot of jobs for multi-media technicians in the higher education system of tomorrow but academics cannot be as confident. Not that there won't be "academic" jobs - but producing what? for whom?

As a unionist as well, there are severe challenges facing us - that's news to no-one. The standard answer is usually about the need to market the idea of unionism and sell unions to young people. However, I think we need to look in an entirely different direction. I think the days of making alliances on the basis of agreement on an interpretation of history are over. The number one question in the union movement today is not program or image, but ethics. It is not even a program for the next few years (let alone "left", "right" or "centre" ALP political programs).

Young people are not motivated by images or theories so much as by conceptions of how we should live. The culture industry is nowadays pretty successful in turning every new youth-culture into merchandise and it's time we stopped trying to merchandise ourselves.

Meanwhile, concentrations of value whiz around the world, totally overshadowing the powers of government or any public body, smashing up the best laid plans of gnomes and men. No-one today believes in the myth of a self-stabilising market - the world economy is chiefly characterised by complexity and instability. The economic gurus nowadays model the economy as a massive network of little Turing machines sending electronic messages to each other. It is now formally established that the absurdity of "modelling" the world economy with super-computers solving 4,000 simultaneous equations (with 4,000 x 4,000 arbitrarily selected coefficients!) is an expensive fiction. The global economy is inherently unstable and intractable. The mania for unmitigated penetration of the value relation into every corner of the globe, every public function, the smashing of all barriers to trade which is in any case moving with the speed of light over electronic networks - has undermined the capacity for human beings to lead any kind of human life at all.

I think the only solution to unemployment is to invite anyone who doesn't want to be in this over-worked, stressed-out workforce pick up a minimum living allowance and have the right to go and do whatever they think needs doing for no pay, and let those that want to work, work. And academics need to be allowed to teach and research without the diktat of the economic imperative. Down with efficiency! Get a life!

The method of putting a value on everything so that it can be traded for the best possible price has a limited life-span. I will be absolutely the last person to invite employees in the knowledge industry to pay the price for governments that want to transform everything decent the public sector has ever done into a ticket for making-money. Academics do not want to give up their intellectual property to University Incorporated and for good reason. But I think we in the industry have to take a lead and start doing things differently.

The weakness of the public sector approach is exposed when the state - very body that is supposed to channel the funding to Universities - decides not to. As much as we may hanker for the good old days of the Welfare State and State Education, the so-called "Knowledge Age" is making this approach actually untenable. We must go beyond it.

These questions will be debated at length at a one-day seminar as part of the University of Melbourne Summer School on the 19th February. Further information is available at 19feb99.htm.

Andy Blunden
January 1999