Francis Bacon once quipped, “Knowledge is power”.
But in today’s world of technology, I wonder if that’s still true. I would say that a more accurate statement might be “data is power”.
Consider: in Bacon’s day (late 1500’s) the printing press was still relatively new, and printed material (“data”) wasn’t yet in widespread use, nor was it easily accessible to the common person. Thus, those who possessed knowledge were powerful– they were highly paid, highly regarded, and sought by those in power. I’ve heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was one of the last people who “knew” something about almost every area of human knowledge. In those times, people with knowledge were indeed powerful.
Today, it is impossible to know something about everything. Cultural and scientific advances have brought us so much information that no single person can possibly have that degree of “knowledge”. So now, rather than a handful of polyglots we have huge numbers of specialists who are extremely well-versed in their narrow field but do not possess the general knowledge that Franklin did.
Thus, it seems that knowledge is not as powerful as it once was. Said another way, one man’s knowledge is another man’s trivia.
We see that data is everywhere. Those narrow-minded scientists who study a particular variety of bacteria publish their research and make it available in journals and the internet. The garage musicians who specialize in grunge-ska music upload their songs to their web site or burn CD’s and hand them to friends. The journalist who once wrote for a hometown paper has the ability to spread his words throughout the world via the hometown paper’s web site. All of those people take their knowledge, transform it to data, and share that data with the world.
So in my mind, it is the data– or more accurately, the control of that data– that defines power today. The network administrator who keeps the web site running, the panel that approves or denies journal articles, the editor who tosses out the news story… these are the people who have power. They can allow or prevent one man’s knowledge from reaching his audience.
Granted, such control also existed in Bacon’s day, and Franklin’s, but with the vast abundance of data available today– many orders of magnitude greater than either of those men could conceive– the role of the “gatekeeper” of the data is rising in importance.
Knowledge cannot be saved; data can. (To “save” knowledge you have to write it down or put it in some format other than electrochemical impulses in your brain, at which point it becomes data.) Data can be copied, and transferred, and changed. It can also be destroyed, lending a particular power to those in control as they can cause information to be lost forever– at least until the next person comes along and re-discovers it.
I think it’s a sign of the times, and an interesting commentary on our technological society, that data has become more powerful (more important?) than knowledge.
So what is “power” in today’s world?