What is the Knowledge Economy?

By Ron Rivers,

Labor and productivity play a foundational role in the human experience.  Through so much of our shared past and present the work that we do becomes a defining part of who we are and how we interact with the world around us.  History teaches us that while the nature of productive efforts changes, there is always more to be done and numerous methods establishing how to do it. While change is a proven constant, the precursor of awakening to new approaches and ideas is often a crisis.  In this first article of a series we explore what the new Knowledge Economy is and is not. Arguing throughout the essays that a proactive approach towards scaled implementation of the Knowledge Economy must be central to the Progressive narrative.

Society in the United States seems to go through peaks and valleys when it comes to active participation in the arrangement of society.     When a crisis arises, we see an increase in activity to shape the direction of how we address the circumstances generated.  A modern example is the surge of political activism and action stemming from the 2016 elections. Genuine transformation for good demands that we extend our expanding understanding of consciousness into our institutional arrangements, creating a structure that enables every person to choose between routine work and creative innovation at their discretion.   This is why a deep understanding of the latent potential of the Knowledge Economy is vital to the future of so many people.

Structure and Form

The Knowledge Economy is an economic system where the most advanced form of production requires highly skilled labor that is easily transferable between organizations. Our modern example being Silicon Valley. This type of work has already displaced manufacturing for the title of the most advanced form of production.   In many cases, most advanced will be defined as the most significant returns for input, but not necessarily in all. Knowledge Economy organiziations are the ones that reach the forefront of productive power and, more importantly, demonstrate the ability to stay at the forefront for the foreseeable future.

Central to the Knowledge Economy is the ability to create a high degree of customization of labor and output without requiring standardization.  You can imagine it as a blend of innovative experimentation and productivity, creating a form of employment that draws from humanity’s highest potential, our imagination.   Historically scientific advancements helped to drive advances in productive activity. Today we can observe how within the Knowledge Economy production becomes a vehicle for scientific progress.   

An example would be new products and services that utilize machine learning.  Each innovation builds upon advances in information technology while simultaneously pushing the envelope for what is possible with every new iteration.   Another example would be the increasing efficiency of 3-D Printing which is now allowing people to go directly from ideation to creation of products, saving significant time and resources for prototyping and developing material goods through third parties.  Both scenarios describe processes where the work of production and scientific discovery become intertwined, fundamentally redefining the nature of the labor involved. This reimagination of work, the blending of experimental innovation and creation, has profound consequences for humanity.  

Compare the shifting nature of work in a Knowledge Economy to many of the blue and white collar jobs of today.  For many people being productive in the world is limited to repetitive and machine-like tasks. A blue-collar example would be manual factory labor, taking part in an assembly line, fulfilling a single or set of repetitive tasks each day.     A white-collar case is being a fashion designer in New York City.  On the surface, it sounds like an appealing line of work but after better understanding the process it is apparent that it offers little more creativity than a traditional assembly line worker.  Designing is limited to repetitive and narrow sets of constraints provided through a top-down hierarchy with the primary value being quantities of output. Both examples highlight the needs addressed by the Knowledge Economy, the automation of the repetitive tasks people are forced to endure to live.

The blending of imagination, discovery, and labor offered by the Knowledge Economy creates an opportunity for radical transformation, the complete automation of repetitive tasks within society.   The rise of artificial intelligence as proactive problem-solving machines transcends the capabilities of historical practice. If a task is repeatable, then it is possible to express the action in a formula.  Formulas allow us to encode that action into a machine, freeing us from having to play the role of an imperfect tool in our labors. Humanity is finally at a point in time where we can begin to reconceptualize the entirety of how we work, freeing ourselves from mindless repetition and allowing us to maximize our primary resource, time.  By expanding the horizons of possible directions for our creative potential, we create structures that better support and enhance our freedoms and potential.

To better understand the concept it is important to discuss what the Knowledge Economy is not.  Applying high technology to a hierarchical organization that uses human labor for repetitive work does not constitute a Knowledge Economy organization.  We could use the conglomerate Walmart for example. Walmart has the capital to invest heavily in new practice and procedure, but no amount of technological innovation can act as a substitute for a business model that views employees as cheap, disposable widgets[1].  Walmart lacks the structure to maximize the creative potential of the majority of its staff, instead relying on historical modes of thinking about the organization of labor and tasks within their labor arrangements. Knowledge Economy organizations break from stagnant models of work by combining advanced technologies, education, and procedures to create an environment of practice that pushes the boundaries of what the firm could be.  

Image Credit: ScooNews.com

The Power of the Knowledge Economy

One of the most significant reasons that the United States should encourage the development and spread of the Knowledge Economy is the possibility to transcend the limits of diminishing returns.  Diminishing returns means that after a certain point within a production process adding more resources to a vertical within the process begins to produce lower returns per resource unit. To illustrate this point we can imagine adding more workers to an assembly line in a factory setting.  Eventually, companies reach a point where demand is stable, productive capacity reaches full utilization, and every new employee added produces less than the person before them.    Taken to the extreme, we could imagine an example where adding new employees becomes actively detrimental, causing undue stress and complications on the established processes.  A rigid arrangement of a structure with a company will always subject its productivity to diminishing returns.

Organizations embracing Knowledge Economy technologies and techniques draw from every person’s mental capacities in exploring new and undeveloped ideas.  Whereas in the past productive innovation relied heavily on external sources that were irregular in their timing and relevance, today change can integrate with the process of standard operation.    This structure empowers each worker to experiment and create both within existing arrangements as is tradition, and outside of them, challenging the structure of the firm to be better.   Implementing flexible models of structure allows firms to embrace automation of the repetitive tasks, perpetually pushing the boundaries of what is possible within their organization.

Drawing again from Silicon Valley we could take the example of a start-up development firm.  When employees develop successful automation for a task, it disseminates within the organization, forever freeing people from having to do the repetitive work once associated with the function.  Each innovation builds upon the previous while simultaneously drawing inspiration from the not yet known. The totality of their potential limited only by their imagination of the possible.

These examples provide us with a view of the true scope of power the future Knowledge Economy presents us.  A world where collective efforts towards automation of the repetitive are shared across industries to ensure that humanity is never subject to do the work that a machine can do.  It represents a pivotal point in human history that will not only redefine our definition of work, but also our understanding of who we are. Humans are context driven beings; the historical experiences we share in our cultural, political, and economic arrangements shape our perception of the world.  By embracing a world where labor can be radically fulfilling we write a new chapter in the human experience.


[1] The Fight Against Walmart’s Labor Practices Goes Global by Michelle Chen The Nation https://www.thenation.com/article/the-fight-against-walmarts-labor-practices-goes-global/


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Overcoming Institutionalized Ethics

By Ron Rivers,

At the heart of the Progressive project is a change in direction from what is to what will be. Institutional arrangements have shaped the ethics and consciousness of a people throughout history – they define the very nature of our interactions with one another and the world around us. Present reality demands a more precise examination of the ethics that are imprinted upon us by our systemic structure. The Progressive project seeks to build institutions designed for the maximization of access and agency within society. To successfully manifest this vision we must first recognize the psychological barriers imprinted on us presently through our current institutional arrangements. In doing so, we present ourselves the opportunity to imagine the collective ethical consciousness under a different structuring of society.

 

The possible and the right

The premise of the argument presented here is relatively straightforward – the way our economic, political, social, and educational arrangements fundamentally define how our society operates and the reality in which as individuals exist. These institutions provide the framework for our interactions with one another, and they unconsciously dictate the patterns of our thoughts and in doing so construct limits on our imagination. These limitations are not limited to how we work, play, teach, and love, but permeate through to the moral definitions of what we believe is and is not right.

For example, let’s consider an ethical dilemma that lies on the horizon. Recently NPR published an article[2] about significant advancements that have been taking place in Genetic Engineering. Using the CRISPR[3] technology the scientists have created a Mosquito that when introduced to another colony will spread a mutation that will eventually leave the females sterile, causing species to collapse.

“After mosquitoes carrying the mutation were released into cages filled with unmodified mosquitoes in a high-security basement laboratory in London, virtually all of the insects were wiped out, according to a report[4] in Nature Biotechnology.”

This is a major scientific milestone. However, scientists have been clear that more research is needed before live deployment.

The case for deployment could be made merely in discussing the revenging effects that malaria has in some areas of the world. In 2016 there were 216 million cases of malaria worldwide with 445,000 of these cases resulting in death. [5] Developing nations in Africa experience the worst impact of this disease. Eradication would have the potential to save a tremendous amount of lives which some scientists agree is the best path of action [6]. This disease is a significant problem for many people living outside of the United States. Their lives matter and as we continue the deepening of our global social order we have a human responsibility to offer assistance whenever possible.

At the same time, there are others within the Scientific Community who warn of the potentially dire consequences for releasing these creatures into the wild. Mosquitoes feed on plant nectar, making them pollinators as well as play a vital role in the food chain by providing a source of food for many fish and frogs when in the larvae stage and birds and bats after they mature [7].

Eliminating a species from the natural web can have profound consequences and from the research conducted it does not seem like we have a full understanding of the potential negative impacts of such an act. Historically, we can observe that a lack of knowledge of what is possible in these scenarios has not stopped humans from experimenting before. In the late 1950s to early 1960s China experimented with species eradication. Dubbed the Four Pests Campaign, leader Mao Zedong implemented a plan to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The results of this attempted speciescide were a significant decrease in the rice harvest and a rapid increase of the locust population which intensified the ecological problems. It is believed that this purge increased the impact of the Great Chinese Famine which resulted in 20-45 million people dying of starvation [8].

If we consider the additional element of the ever-increasing threat of crises generated from climate change[9] the situation becomes further complicated. We understand the vast array of negative consequences of our past and present actions within our environment better than ever now but still lack an appropriate global solution. What drives us to believe that a species-level elimination is a viable option without understanding the totality of the consequences? Alternatively, is it the love of one another and the divinity of human life that drives the argument for eradication forward? How does the current structuring of our social, economic, and political institutions impact our options for dealing with this issue in the future?

 

Dominion Ethics

Do we to choose to destroy these mosquitoes? Is it ethical to exterminate an entire species for our convenience?

Religion plays a significant role in defining the ethics of a society, and if we take the above example of climate change and examine the effects of the rise of dominion theory, this provides interesting insight on how religions may influence the reaction of society to this issue.

King James Bible, Genesis 1:28 “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Generations of the western religious dominance have created a generational ambivalence to the planet supported by this dominion theory. Aside from climate change, we can observe the dominion theory in our treatment of animals in the present. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction [10] that receives little press and is all but ignored by political leadership. Much of the food we eat is meat-based products which are quickly accelerating to the most polluting industry in the world. [11] That says nothing about how we turn a blind eye to the treatment of these animals while they exist. At the core of this philosophy is a perverted Darwinism about how humanity is classified as the fittest and therefore endowed with the prerogative to do what we will. We abandoned personal responsibility for our actions and ethical decisions under the illusion of a divine mandate from an ancient text that relegates supporting a strictly hierarchical organization of society. I say we, but in truth, no person of the present is to blame aside from those who deny collective progress for personal gain. As mentioned earlier the majority of humans today did not choose these institutional norms – they are artifacts of the past that continue to dominate the thought and action of the present.

 

Present ethics

Dominion ethics are further supported by a dogmatic approach to our current economic and political arrangements. Our world is competitive, and for many, it is filled with fear and anxiety about the future. Increasing prices limiting access to high-quality education, information, and resources create system barriers for many, squandering our collective potential. It’s difficult to think about the ideal version of yourself and society when a few sick days off from work might mean missing a critical bill payment. For those fortunate enough to be beyond the scope of the struggle for necessities lays the next great crises, climate change and the many challenges that will follow. As our politicians continue to quibble about the realities of this conundrum and who is responsible, the scientific community pleas for collective action yet the resolutions fail to present themselves in a meaningful way.

Getting back to the scenario at hand, to kill mosquitoes or to not kill the mosquitoes, if we were to derive our solution from the framework provided by Dominion ethics, we would choose to destroy the mosquitoes because this theory dictates that humans are superior therefore it is ethically the right thing to do. However, if Dominion ethics were not prevalent and there was a different philosophy, it is reasonable to assume that a different remedy would be sought out.

 

 

Transform society, transform ethics

For the sake of philosophical exercise, let’s imagine a world where labor was related to personal interests and exploration. All people had access to the education, information, transportation, and resources necessary to experiment within all walks of life. Could we imagine our capacity to construct a new set of economic, political, and social institutions free from the constraints of our current struggles? What type of value system would that society manifest?

Economic cooperation would usurp competition as the dominant model of progress. A vital suite of protections in the form of a socialized bottom would encourage an entirely new swath of people to experiment and innovate in potentially limitless directions. In this imagined institutional framework, the freedom of choice in our labor combined with deepened access to one another would direct us towards models of work structured as small businesses or cooperative firms for larger projects. Automation technology would be a public boon, removing the need for humans to do the job of a machine – freeing us to explore our creative and experimental potential. If all of our labor were based on a more cooperative form of competition, we would lessen the barrier between us and the others. Education would offer a focus on multiple perspectives with the intention of working cooperatively to determine an ideal solution to the problems presented. No person is an island – history teaches us, the most significant contributions to human life have been projects of cooperation. In deepening our connection to one another, we replace fear and threat of subjugation with a sense of unified purpose.

Structurally we could bring about this ethical shift by federally funded education programs, freeing them from the burden of reliance on municipal taxes. Students and teachers would have access to the best materials and curriculum empowering an effort to redefine how we provide access to information within our society. With cooperation being the dominant ideal, the structure of education would transform into Roberto Unger’s vision of a more dialectic framework. We would choose an approach focused on selective depth of specific subjects over wide memorization of facts. Topics would be taught from two contrasting perspectives, fostering dialogue and discussion from the students. Transforming our way of learning is core to the Progressive project, it instills in us the fundamental problem-solving abilities necessary for the people we are destined to become. Personal observations through volunteer work at my local high school conducting civics seminars gives me the impression that this vision of a generational cooperative attitude is closer than we think due to the students’ ability to connect instantly.

Politically we could reorganize our process in such a way as to raise the temperature of democracy within the United States, creating an ethos of personal responsibility to be an active part in the betterment of our communities. We must decouple politics from Dominion ethics. This project requires a fundamental overhaul of our system of elections. We would de-commercialize our election process, removing it from the hands of those who would seek to profit from it. Choosing instead to provide a method of deepened access to candidates and information in an easy and convenient format accessible to all – think digital. Data would drive the issues and debates would be Oxford style [12] focusing on substance. This deepening of democracy would expand the influence of our collective transformative powers. The reimagining of our political structure would heighten every American’s sense of agency in both their destiny and our common direction forward. This shared bigness would become a cultural value, supported by institutional reformations to ensure the access of all to the necessary tools needed to transform the world.

 

Ethical alternatives

So what happens to the mosquitoes in our scenario of alternative institutions? No prediction I make here could successfully capture the type of humans we would be under a reformed set of institutions. We could imagine that scenarios involving voluntary relocation, material assistance, or other yet unknown alternatives would be viable options. In the end, we may still choose to exterminate the mosquitoes. I imagine that under a different set of ethics defining circumstances that the ecosystem and the creatures that share would be approached from a position of avoiding death if at all possible.

In transforming society do we open up new regimes of thoughts and dominant ethics among our collective? I would argue most definitely yes. We all exist within this shared reality, defined at all levels by our choices to create new alternatives or accept existing structures. When an existing institutional structure limits our ability to transform our economic, political, and social regimes we are consequently denied the ability to change our moral circumstance. An argument for the Progressive project is an argument to expand the human capacity, small but cumulative innovations in many different directions, consistently bringing humanity one step closer to realizing our fullest collective potential.

The restructuring and redefining of our ethical structures should at the core of the Progressive project. It is within our collective power to change our circumstance and in doing so, forever change ourselves and our destiny. A focused approach to piecemeal institutional innovations across all sectors with the intention of institutional reformation is a necessary path for our ascension to more profound freedom.

 

 


[1] Kurzweil’s The Law of Accelerating Returns Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change

[2] Mosquitoes Genetically Modified To Crash Species That Spreads Malaria by Rob Stein NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/09/24/650501045/mosquitoes-genetically-modified-to-crash-species-that-spreads-malaria

[3] Questions and Answers about CRISPR Broad Institute https://www.broadinstitute.org/what-broad/areas-focus/project-spotlight/questions-and-answers-about-crispr

[4] A CRISPR–Cas9 gene drive targeting doublesex causes complete population suppression in caged Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes by Kyros Kyrou, Andrew M Hammond, Roberto Galizi, Nace Kranjc, Austin Burt, Andrea K Beaghton, Tony Nolan & Andrea Crisanti https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4245

[5] Malaria World Health Organization http://www.who.int/malaria/en/

[6] Would it be wrong to eradicate mosquitoes? By Claire Bates BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35408835

[7] What Good Are Mosquitoes? By Debbie Hadley ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-good-are-mosquitoes-1968303

[8] Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse-Tung’s “Four Pests” Disaster by Rebecca Kreston Discover Magazine http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/2014/02/26/mao-four-pests-china-disease/#.WP7DeJMrJE4

[9] Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn by Brandon Miller CNN https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/07/world/climate-change-new-ipcc-report-wxc/index.html

[10] Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn

[11] Meat and dairy companies to surpass oil industry as world’s biggest polluters, report finds by Josh Gabbatiss Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/meat-dairy-industry-greenhouse-gas-emissions-fossil-fuels-oil-pollution-iatp-grain-a8451871.html

[12] Oxford-Style Debate, Explained by Intelligence Squared Debates https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVmShH0-9xY


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