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Growing a knowledge economy

In March 1994, John Perry Barlow wrote a very refreshing and stimulating article in Wired Magazine (2.03) entitled "The Economy of Ideas". The article is still very pertinent today. In an attempt to clarify ideas about copyright and patents, Barlow explores what "information" is in the Digital Age and what differences there are between an economy based on material products and one built on information. He elaborates a three-fold taxonomy of information as activity, life-form and relationship. Re-reading his article in preparation for a course I gave today at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, I elaborated on some of his ideas, the results of which I'd like to share with you here.

As a starting point, let's look at what Barlow means when he talks about "information". He sees information as an active, living relationship in which data takes form and meaning in how we receive and make sense of it in our own context. Without people to receive it, information doesn't make any sense. Seen from such an angle, information is an on-going process rather than a fixed product. It differs from person to person and changes with time. He also stresses that information needs to circulate. It gains in value as it circulates and multiplies. There is likely to be some confusion using the word "information" in such a dynamic way as I suspect that most people don't think of information as a relationship. Despite this fact much can be gained by following Barlow and exploring the idea of a knowledge economy based on relationships.

In a traditional economy, the process of distribution doesn't change products. They are as they are once and for all. In a fully-fledged knowledge economy, information would not just circulate, but grow and develop in moving from person to person. Imagine that you work through the ideas you read in an article and in integrating them in your context, add to them on the basis of you own culture and experience, following the unexplored paths they open up for you. Having done so, if something new and exiting crops up, you can then pass on this re-worked set of ideas to others. To a certain extent, I'm reminded of the process described by Alain Ouaknin in his book "Lire aux éclats". He talks of a never-ending exploration of the Scriptures, each time having the pleasure and the joy of discovering something new and enriching. Talking of "caressing" rather than "grasping", he depicts a way of reading that rediscovers the same text with fresh eyes every time. Returning to the would-be knowledge economy, each of us can come at a set of ideas from a different angle collectively producing a multifaceted picture full of nuance and richness.

John Perry Barlow as lyricist of the Grateful Dead, puts considerable emphasis on the idea of performance. He uses the metaphor of performance to depict what he sees as the value of immediacy in information. According to him, the closer you are in time to the source of the information, the more value it has. This certainly works for software that clearly looses value with time. It is also true of news and may also be true of other utilitarian functions, but for ideas themselves, the depreciation with time is far from being proved. In fact, we are very wasteful of ideas. It is possible that we could re-work many forgotten ideas as a potential source of solutions to current problems by integrating them into unexpected contexts. As one whose main activity is writing, re-working and publishing texts in a drive to understand more and more deeply, I grant less importance to the performance side of the information economy than Barlow and am much more interested in the process of re-working ideas from new perspectives.

In thinking through the necessary stabilisation of the knowledge economy in particular in relationship to the exchange of value (with or without money), Barlow talks of the role of ethics as a possible controlling factor. Seen from the perspective I elaborate here, one of the central ethics of a knowledge society would be the responsibility of each and everyone of us to contribute to the circulation and development of ideas both for our own good and for that of society. Not just consuming the ideas, but also re-working those that appeal to us in our heightened curiousity, before passing them on to others.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: January 17th, 2002 - Last up-dated: January 17th, 2002