Free Knowledge Is Worthless (or Perhaps Much Worse)

 

The incomprehensible genius of the free market is that it is the most accurate measure we have of the true value of, well, anything. How much is yellow paint worth? Well, that depends on the demand for number 2 pencils. And other things that are yellow. How could a centralized planning system possibly respond quickly enough to be of value? It’s just impossible to reliably measure or design anything that complicated. One of my three kids is sitting on my couch, watching “Say Yes to the Dress.” Where are the other two? I’m not really sure. Which leaves several billion people that I’m even less sure about. And remember, I have only three kids. I can’t even control this system, much less the international economy.

The ultimate target of my current drunken rage is, of course, Google. How many people on the planet currently own smartphones? The best guess right now is 5 billion people, or around 2/3 of the world’s population. A remarkable number, considering that smartphones are an extraordinarily complex device that did not exist, say, 15-20 years ago. So this ubiquitous availability of the sum of human knowledge must be a great step forward for mankind. Right? I ask you to look at the current state of mankind and explain these benefits to me.

Surely the easy availability of all the knowledge that has ever been achieved would significantly reduce the level of stupidity in the general population, correct? Progressive politics killed around 100 million people in the 1900s. Perhaps you didn’t read that book. But with Google in your pocket, you will be less likely to vote to promote the same systems of ethics that led to such death and destruction so recently. Right?

If the Democrat National Committee and Hillary Clinton were not so crooked, Bernie Sanders would likely be president right now. Could you and Google explain to me how Bernie is different from, say, Mussolini? No. But he was nearly the president of the most powerful country in the world.

I think that most things are overpriced. Including (and perhaps especially) those things that are free.

Our founders were largely self-educated – the cost of their knowledge was significant. As the price of knowledge moves from inaccessible, to expensive, to essentially free, I suggest that perhaps the value of knowledge follows a similar trajectory, but on a steeper curve. What was once priceless has now become worthless. Worse than worthless. Those who have more of this commodity become not more valuable, but more dangerous.

Subsidizing college educations has not turned out to be helpful. The impact of improved communications leading to a smaller world has turned out to be dangerous. And the easy availability of infinite knowledge has been clearly destructive.

I didn’t anticipate this. But I don’t see how you can argue with any of it.

In the words of, I believe (I’m too lazy to Google it on my phone) George Will, nobody washes a rental car. So if knowledge is free and easily accessible, then it moves from priceless to worthless (at best). In the words of, I believe (I’m too lazy to Google it on my phone) Woody Hayes, nothing that comes easy in this world is worth a damn. So what happens when that most valuable of commodities, knowledge, comes easy?

I wish I knew. And I’m glad I don’t.

I need another drink…

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  1. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Compare to what you get here for a few bucks a month.

    • #1
  2. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Doc, I’m still not sure what you have against Google.  

    I love Google.  I use it every day.  I use it, for instance, to check things when I write a post.  Misinformation is a bad thing, isn’t it?   In writing my last post, for instance, I Googled to see if George Orwell actually wrote the “rough men” quote. (He didn’t.)

    This morning I googled “salty dog” to see if I remembered the words of that old folk song.   I do that sort of thing all the time. 

    Google won’t save us from socialism, going to Hell, or from mistreating our pets.  But that’s asking too much of Google.

    Google leads us to information in the same way, though far more efficiently, that the Dewey Decimal System of the once ubiquitous card catalogues once led us. 

    Doc, embrace Google. 

     

    • #2
  3. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Doctor, I may be mistaken (I often am), but I believe there is a difference between information and knowledge. In my mind, knowledge implies the application of information.

    College education, as widely practiced nowadays, has become much cheapened in the U.S., but applied education as in the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine is indispensable in the modern world; and well worth the price.

    Other than that, how’s your day going today? I don’t things are quite as hopeless as all that.

    • #3
  4. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doc, I’m still not sure what you have against Google.

    I love Google. I use it every day. I use it, for instance, to check things when I write a post. Misinformation is a bad thing, isn’t it? In writing my last post, for instance, I Googled to see if George Orwell actually wrote the “rough men” quote. (He didn’t.)

    This morning I googled “salty dog” to see if I remembered the words of that old folk song. I do that sort of thing all the time.

    Google won’t save us from socialism, going to Hell, or from mistreating our pets. But that’s asking too much of Google.

    Google leads us to information in the same way, though far more efficiently, that the Dewey Decimal System of the once ubiquitous card catalogues once led us.

    Doc, embrace Google.

     

    I love Google.  My whole life is on it.  I use it every day.

    But as a society, it hasn’t had the impact I expected.

    • #4
  5. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Doctor, I may be mistaken (I often am), but I believe there is a difference between information and knowledge. In my mind, knowledge implies the application of information.

    College education, as widely practiced nowadays, has become much cheapened in the U.S., but applied education as in the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine is indispensable in the modern world; and well worth the price.

    Other than that, how’s your day going today? I don’t things are quite as hopeless as all that.

    My second kid left for college today.  I’m feeling lonely.  Some bourbon helped.

    I probably shouldn’t write under such circumstances.

    Sorry about that…

    • #5
  6. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

     

    So, you are human after all.

    I wish you a much better tomorrow.

    • #6
  7. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Doc, I understand completely.  In somewhat different circumstances, after my mom died, my dad grew terribly lonely.  

    Unhappily, he used to phone me when he was lonely and drunk.  I used to hate those calls.

    • #7
  8. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    P.S. Doc, you know bourbon can lead to moroseness. Jameson’s, however, seldom fails to lift the spirits.

    • #8
  9. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    My second kid left for college today. I’m feeling lonely. Some bourbon helped.

    I probably shouldn’t write under such circumstances.

    Sorry about that…

    Well Doc, most people shouldn’t.  Some people should, and shouldn’t be sorry, though the sentiment is appreciated, not irregardless.  Also, ‘kid leaving for college’ would cover a lot of sins even if there were any sins to cover.

     

    • #9
  10. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Doctor, I may be mistaken (I often am), but I believe there is a difference between information and knowledge. In my mind, knowledge implies the application of information.

    College education, as widely practiced nowadays, has become much cheapened in the U.S., but applied education as in the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine is indispensable in the modern world; and well worth the price.

    Other than that, how’s your day going today? I don’t things are quite as hopeless as all that.

    My second kid left for college today. I’m feeling lonely. Some bourbon helped.

    I probably shouldn’t write under such circumstances.

    Sorry about that…

    He who has not sinned…

    • #10
  11. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    But as a society, it hasn’t had the impact I expected.

    The google/ internet/ cell phone ‘experiment’ is too new to (completely) understand.  It is still jello dude.  This though gives us a fighting chance to begin to shape these new tool sets in ‘our own image.’  As a matter of fact the Progs are already leading the way in that field.

    • #11
  12. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    The attraction of socialism/big government is that it is an easy answer to nearly every problem.  We’ll just find the smartest people and give them nearly unlimited authority over everything and they’ll take care of us.  We won’t have to make hard decisions for ourselves anymore.  Making decisions can be hard, it’s tempting to farm it out to other people.

    • #12
  13. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    Making decisions can be hard, it’s tempting to farm it out to other people.

    No.  It isn’t.

    • #13
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Information points you to the Great Books, and to the Hillsdale Online Courses, both of which impart invaluable knowledge.  And the Hillsdale Online Courses are FREE, but that does not make them worthless.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

    • #14
  15. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    If you realize that time is the scarcest of all commodities, then you realize that nothing, absolutely nothing is free if it takes time. 

    • #15
  16. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    I am more optimistic about proximate outcomes (I was going to write ultimate, but we have no way to write about what is final).

    People will use this access to knowledge to their benefit.  That the cost is low provides more opportunity.  Beans gave is cheap and abundant protein.  Cities bloomed.  The printing press made knowledge more easily accessible. Society bloomed.  

    I believe that this great explosion of access will be positive.

    So do I pray.

    • #16
  17. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Dr. Bastiat: Our founders were largely self-educated…

    I submit that the emphasis here is not so much on “self” but on “educated,” as in they were truly educated…far beyond what the word seems to mean today.

    And, to be clear, easy access to information is not knowledge.

    • #17
  18. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    philo (View Comment): And, to be clear, easy access to information is not knowledge.

    A quick follow-up: As I hit the “comment” button a good (related) example came to me: The Excel Spreadsheet.  Any engineer over 50 could probably tell stories for hours about whiz kids on Excel that couldn’t engineer their way out of a wet paper bag.  But if you want decimal places well past anything significant it will be there in a jiffy.  And don’t get me started on their over reliance (i.e. complete faith) in the Microsoft curve fitting functions…God help us.

    • #18
  19. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Free or cheap does tend to get discounted.

    After forty years teaching in a community college, my image for American eduction in cynical moments was to bend over with hands together in supplication while pleading, “Please, Please, learn. Please learn.” Nearly every staff meeting was devoted to some magical technique for reaching what might be called the reluctant learner.

    A colleague who is still working tells me there is now current a view of students as nearly destitute, some apparently have to share a single pair of shoes! And this in Massachusetts. (Apparently, the new faculty hasn’t checked out the parking lot or the Iphone models seen everywhere on campus.) Patronizing maternalism is running the show.

    Stealing an idea from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I used to suggest we should make it a capital crime to teach a college course. Then there would be secret meetings, coded textbooks hidden away, and actual learning taking place.  We have gone from “college aspirant” to “college expectant” students as the majority. Not to mention the poor kids forced into college by well meaning adults (who don’t bother to notice that they don’t want to be there) in the false belief that it is either college or skid row for them. (Meanwhile, we have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, skilled workers of all sorts.)

     

    • #19
  20. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Simon Templar (View Comment):
    As a matter of fact the Progs are already leading the way in that field.

    Yup. They’ve figured out how to use social media quickly to assemble a mob of screaming banshees at a coffee shop where some nice lady like Candice Owen is drinking a cuppa and chatting with a friend, there to harass her and call the black cops racist. 

    But then guns (and slingshots) can be used for good or evil, as with Google.  More than once a student with a phone found me a poem I was struggling to quote from memory or something else useful for the class. 

    The jury may be out, but I am not hopeful. Original sin, after all….

     

    • #20
  21. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    The basic observation about the value of cheap instantly available information is interesting.  Book learning, or experience can lead to knowledge, these quick blurbs help us remember things or check facts, but they’re little more than references. You can also contrast this free abundant information with information coming from markets.   Information gleaned from markets by people acting in markets is different from both accumulated book learning and quick google blurbs, its emergent, contingent, the product of the thousands, if not millions of interactions of success and failures from all over, is also free and comes in intelligible pieces called prices.  Actors in-gauged in markets can and do use google type information but survival depends on information they get by interacting with markets and relevant prices.  Without markets it’s all pretty useless to economic actors whether cheap or expensive because the most relevant information isn’t and cannot be available.  I wonder if the cheap availability of so much information makes us forget that reality.

    • #21
  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    It’s worth considering. I don’t think the value of knowledge has changed. But there are indeed as many problems with “progress” as there are benefits. 

    Trust in experts and officials is historically normal, but today there are infinitely more of them. We are ever more reliant on specialists. We are ever more reliant on intermediaries to parse jargon and standards for clarity. 

    Because information is so accessible, even as we rely on experts, we feel capable to select the experts we prefer. 

    The Internet and ease of transport have struck a blow to ideas of nationhood and the peculiar certainties of each civilization. We are now constantly bombarded with so many conflicting ideas that multiculturalism — giving up on sorting and harmonizing it all — is common. 

    Technological progress is not simply good. It requires ever more of us. 

    • #22
  23. DonG Coolidge
    DonG
    @DonG

    And what to make of the Dem. idea of “free” college for all?  I have offered to create a free online college and give everyone a “diploma”.  I won’t charge a thing.  Bernie has not called me yet.  It would not be worth the paper it is printed on, but we’d be that much closer to the socialist utopia(tm).

    • #23
  24. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    I love Google. My whole life is on it. I use it every day.

    But as a society, it hasn’t had the impact I expected.

    That reminds me of a bit on Car Talk where Tom and Ray were arguing about whether two people (OK, guys) who individually know very little about some topic they are discussing collectively know more or less than they do individually. The consensus: Less.

    I believe that on the internet, the level of knowledge decreases exponentially not linearly as more ignorant people joint the conversation.

     

    • #24
  25. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    philo (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment): And, to be clear, easy access to information is not knowledge.

    A quick follow-up: As I hit the “comment” button a good (related) example came to me: The Excel Spreadsheet. Any engineer over 50 could probably tell stories for hours about whiz kids on Excel that couldn’t engineer their way out of a wet paper bag. But if you want decimal places well past anything significant it will be there in a jiffy. And don’t get me started on their over reliance (i.e. complete faith) in the Microsoft curve fitting functions…God help us.

    I guess they quit teaching significant digits when they quit using slide rules.

    • #25
  26. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    GFHandle (View Comment):

    Stealing an idea from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I used to suggest we should make it a capital crime to teach a college course. Then there would be secret meetings, coded textbooks hidden away, and actual learning taking place. We have gone from “college aspirant” to “college expectant” students as the majority. Not to mention the poor kids forced into college by well meaning adults (who don’t bother to notice that they don’t want to be there) in the false belief that it is either college or skid row for them. (Meanwhile, we have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, skilled workers of all sorts.)

     

    I have a BA from a prestigious private college and a law degree from UT; I’ve never used any of it.  I’m not sure what the arc of my employment would have looked like without them.

    • #26
  27. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    GFHandle (View Comment):

    Free or cheap does tend to get discounted.

    After forty years teaching in a community college, my image for American eduction in cynical moments was to bend over with hands together in supplication while pleading, “Please, Please, learn. Please learn.” Nearly every staff meeting was devoted to some magical technique for reaching what might be called the reluctant learner.

    A colleague who is still working tells me there is now current a view of students as nearly destitute, some apparently have to share a single pair of shoes! And this in Massachusetts. (Apparently, the new faculty hasn’t checked out the parking lot or the Iphone models seen everywhere on campus.) Patronizing maternalism is running the show.

    Stealing an idea from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I used to suggest we should make it a capital crime to teach a college course. Then there would be secret meetings, coded textbooks hidden away, and actual learning taking place. We have gone from “college aspirant” to “college expectant” students as the majority. Not to mention the poor kids forced into college by well meaning adults (who don’t bother to notice that they don’t want to be there) in the false belief that it is either college or skid row for them. (Meanwhile, we have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, skilled workers of all sorts.)

     

     

    • #27
  28. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    All the good plumbers, electricians, welders, I’ve ever met were people who had pretty intellectual hobbies. While learning their trade, I sense they were also very focused. I think it’s easier for an apathetic student to drift toward some kind of associate’s degree at a county college than it would be for him to become a good welder or plumber.

     

    • #28
  29. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    For all the search engines, smartphones, social media websites, and all the “knowledge” they provide, what has been lost is the thirst for wisdom–the knowledge of things in their ultimate causes. Not the superficial explanations, but the knowledge that comes from the relentless drive to understand how to live well. To live as a human being ought to live. This is particularly so in times of trial and toil, but with the cacophony of noise all round us, and our utter to refusal to seek silence, we just skip passed the real ends of the human person. 

    We could try to consider this:

    O God, Thou art my God,

    I seek Thee.

    My soul thirsts for Thee,

    My flesh faints for Thee

    as in a dry and weary land

    where no water is.

    So I have looked upon Thee in the sanctuary,

    beholding Thy Power and Thy Glory.

    Because Thy steadfast love is better than life

    my lips shall praise Thee.

    So I will bless Thee all the days of my life.

    I will lift up my hands and call on Thy name.

    Psalm 63.

    Google cannot offer anything close to that kind of knowledge.

    • #29
  30. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    All the good plumbers, electricians, welders, I’ve ever met are people who had pretty intellectual hobbies. Why would apathetic county college students be happier drifting into a trade ?

    Your experience is different from mine.  I was a carpenter for 25 years, and knew plenty of good tradesmen.  Not many had intellectual hobbies.  You probably see the few that do because of the business you’re in.

    • #30
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