Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Field of Knowledge In Computerized Societies

The postindustrial and postmodern age we now live in is marked by language-enhancing technologies. Scientific knowledge is also a kind of discourse. And it is fair to say that for the last forty years the “leading” sciences and technologies have had to do with language: phonology and theories of linguistics, problems of communication and cybernetics, modern theories of algebra and informatics, computers and their languages, problems of translation and the search for areas of compatibility among computer languages, problems of information storage and data banks, telematics and the perfection of intelligent terminals, to paradoxology.

Learning is translated into quantities, or quanta, of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn. Research on translating machines is already well advanced.” Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as “knowledge” statements. The goal of knowledge is its exchange and consumption.

It is widely accepted that knowledge has become the principle force of production over the last few decades. In the postindustrial and postmodern age, science will maintain and no doubt strengthen its preeminence in the arsenal of productive capacities of the nation-states. Lyotard argues that this situation is one of the reasons leading to the conclusion that the gap between developed and developing countries will grow ever wider in the future. However, the opposite has occurred: developed countries have economic reasons to spill their scientific knowledge onto developing country scientists because their labor is cheaper.

Lyotard argues that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.

The ideology of communicational “transparency,” where we are able to see what the corporation are doing with our information, and which goes hand in hand with the commercialization of knowledge, will begin to perceive the State as a factor of opacity and “noise.” It is from this point of view that the problem of the relationship between economic and State powers threatens to arise with a new urgency. Lyotard is in favor of the state, but without warrant. He seems to believe that the state is the omni-benevolent force that can adjudicate these disputes even-handedly. He says,

"Economic powers have reached the point of imperiling the stability of the state through new forms of the circulation of capital that go by the generic name of multi-national corporations. These new forms of circulation imply that investment decisions have, at least in part, passed beyond the control of the nation-states.”

He asks us to suppose, for example, that a firm such as IBM is authorized to occupy a belt in the earth’s orbital field and launch communications satellites or satellites housing data banks. Who will have access to them? We should respond that IBM has access to them, since they developed them freely, and offer that service to anyone willing to exchange money for. Who will determine which channels or data are forbidden? The State? The state shouldn't decide this. In fact, this situation has already occurred with China's internet-nanny programs. ISP Corporations and browsers like Yahoo have helped China find people who are doing illegal searches on the net. But this is freedom of information, and the interests of the state should have no power over that. In the even that corporations decide which channels are forbidden, this would imply that corporations would rule over people just as a state. The state is already a corporate parasite, however. So I fail to see what the difference is.

Will the State simply be one user among others? Yes, if there is a state. New legal issues will be raised, and with them the question: “who will know?” It is not hard to visualize learning circulating along the same lines as money, instead of for its “educational” value or political (administrative, diplomatic, military) importance; the pertinent distinction would no longer be between knowledge and ignorance, but rather, as is the case with money, between “payment knowledge” and “investment knowledge” – in other words, between units of knowledge exchanged in a daily maintenance framework (the reconstitution of the work force, “survival”) versus funds of knowledge dedicated to optimizing the performance of a project. This is undoubtedly true today. Someone who has knowledge and can be used for labor is human capital. But what is human capital but knowledge packets enclosed by a locomotive vessel?

If this were the case, communicational transparency would be similar to liberalism. Liberalism does not preclude an organization of the flow of money in which some channels are used in decision making while others are only good for the payment of debts. One could similarly imagine flows of knowledge traveling along identical channels of identical nature, some of which would be reserved for the “decision makers,” while the others would be used to repay each person’s perpetual debt with respect to the social bond. This is also true. But Lyotard fails to see that this is not a problem. Information should be kept private through communication technologies. He seems to imply that everyone ought to have equal access to information that one party has reserved for another party in a free transaction. Why should we limit those transactions?

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