Knowledge as Merchandise?

“But let no one bring a charge,
    let no one accuse another,
for your people are like those
    who bring charges against a priest.
You stumble day and night,
    and the prophets stumble with you.
So I will destroy your mother—
    my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.

  • Hosea 4:6

The wise prevail through great power, and those who have knowledge muster their strength.

  • Proverbs 24:5

Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

  • Jeremiah 3:15

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

  • 2 Peter 1:3

“The idea that knowledge is produced to be sold appears in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The book was originally written for the Council of Universities in Quebec, Canada, and the use of the term ‘postmodern’ in its title is significant. Although Lyotard did not invent the term, which had been used by various art critics since the 1870s, his book was responsible for broadening its range and increasing its popularity. His use of the word in the title of this book is often said to mark the beginning of postmodern thought.
“The term ‘postmodernism’ has since been used in so many different ways that it is now hard to know exactly what it means, but Lyotard’s definition is very clear. Postmodernism, he writes, is a matter of ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives.’ Meta-narratives are overarching, single stories that attempt to sum up the whole of human history, or that attempt to put all of our knowledge into a single framework. Marxism (the view that history can be seen as a series of struggles between social classes) is an example of a meta-narrative. Another is the idea that humanity’s story is one of progress toward deeper knowledge and social justice, brought about by greater scientific understanding.
“Our incredulity toward these meta-narratives implies a new scepticism Lyotard suggests that this is due to a shift in the way we have related to knowledge since World War II, and to the huge change in the technologies we use to deal with it. Computers have fundamentally transformed our attitudes, as knowledge has become information that can be stored in databases, moved to and fro, and bought and sold. This is what Lyotard calls the ‘mercantilization’ of knowledge.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998) makes two points in this little synopsis of his works, and both need to be addressed.

As for knowledge as merchandise, I wholeheartedly agree, and we have become stupid about it.  As for my essays that I post.  I have a copy on my computer.  I have a copy on the cloud.  But these things have been uploaded to the website and I could retrieve the information back to my drives if needed.  But why store them in three places?  Two is enough to achieve a backup.

And did you know that the word processing software that most of us use can be setup to record that a particular error was made in revision fourteen of the document and the error repeated in all revisions since then?  Why?  Just fix the error, and you’re done!!

But the concept of knowledge having monetary value is something that I discussed with two vastly different bosses at my last job. I was the training manager. I taught people the best way to operate combustion equipment, mostly to improve efficiency, thus lowering emissions and saving fuel costs, but the same principles improved productivity, the quality of what was heated, and the maintenance costs were less. All of that by doing some commonsense things, once you had the knowledge. I taught people who bought my employer’s equipment, but I could teach the same class for the competitor’s equipment. The latter type projects had multiple benefits. It showed the customer that our company knew what we were talking about, and they might come to us in the future. It provided good will. And it might help lower the consumption of fossil fuels.

My first boss taught me his method of estimating projects when I was asked to write sales proposals. He always factored in additional hours, much more than I would need to complete the work. He called it “payment for our knowledge.” He understood that our knowledge was valuable. A typical project might cost $30,000, to carry the example forward.

My next boss argued that my track record was that I completed the projects in much less time than estimated. He ordered me to not pad my estimates. A lower price meant more work for the company and more work to keep me busy. Billable hours meant job security. I argued that our knowledge was valuable. His response was, “Nonsense! Once you teach some basic science, the ‘knowledge’ is commonsense.” I lowered the price to $20,000 for the same type of job as was sold for $30,000. When I brought in the contract with billable hours left unused, he forced me to make the price $16,000 for the next one, then $12,000 for the next. To get the projects done on budget, I was working weekends and not billing my hours to the project.

Two things happened. The customers talked to one another, and those that had paid $30,000 felt they had been cheated. Our company’s good will in the past became a mark of dishonesty. And since the value of the knowledge was less than half what it used to be, the customers figured they could do a better job of teaching it than we could. Our knowledge lost its value, and it became nearly impossible to make sales.

But I have a problem with postmodernism as Lyotard defines it.  Christianity is a meta-narrative by his definition.  While I look with incredulity at Evolution and Millions of Years, I do not look in the same manner toward Christianity or the Scientific Method or maybe a few other schools of thought.

Now, if we examine Christianity with total incredulity and find that Christianity stands up to the most severe criticism and examination that is humanly possible, then fine, have your fun.  I will be here waiting while you spend the next five years digging and digging until the hole you have dug comes back to where you started.  There are a few Christian writers and pastors today who have done that already.  Lee Strobel is a good example.

While that skeptic who needs that rigorous detailed argument exists, we need some people to look at Christianity with incredulity and find out that when Jesus called Himself the Truth, He was telling the truth.  But for most people who come to Jesus, they simply find that no other path will work, and they feel empty inside. They discover that Jesus fills that emptiness.

Will they study with incredulity after that emptiness has been filled?  Why?!?!  When the emptiness has been filled and you have Joy in your heart, why mess with a good thing?

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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