This essay puts forward the thesis that the central challenge in the knowledge age is not universal physical access to information but universal cognitive access to knowledge.This essay puts forward the thesis that the central challenge in the knowledge age is not universal physical access to information but universal cognitive access to knowledge.
1.0 After 500 years of information distribution: the next challenge…
The central challenge facing most knowledge-based institutional systems – education, health, knowledge-driven industries, communications, etc. is the paradigm shift in man’s relationship to knowledge and its use.
2.0 For nearly 500 years now, there has been an increasing distribution of knowledge (in the form of information embodied in newspapers, books, magazines, and in the 20th century – films and television and, of course, the Internet and computer based communications). This 500 year march has been marked by an increasingly intense drive to reduce communication costs, increase reach and lower the cost to user of entertainment and information.
3.0 In the past decade, particularly since the rapid growth of the www, the quantum and range of information available to users has gone up dramatically – leading to a new situation unseen before in man’s relationship with information – too much access to knowledge.
It is at this juncture, that man faces a new challenge, which he has not encountered meaningfully in his history. The challenge of making sense of it all: the challenge of meaningful utilization of knowledge for productive use – the challenge of assimilating that information not at a societal level alone but also at an individual level.
4.0 This challenge – the challenge of assimilation can be called the last 12 inches problem. The distance between the PC Screen and the user’s head. This is the cognitive distance between information and understanding which needs to be crossed after crossing the geographical distance between creator of knowledge and user of knowledge.
5.0 The limits of physical access to information…
This is a new problem. Man has never faced the problem of ‘use’ – whether food, clothing, shelter or even primary education – availability has implied use of these resources. If food is made available then it follows that people have the capacity to consume it.
If clothing is made available, it is taken for granted that people will be able to use them. In fact these are all physical access goods, wherein, the problem of ‘capacity to use’ is never brought up as an issue in distribution.
6.0 At a superficial level, information is perceived as no different from these ‘physical access’ goods. If there is more information distributed more widely, then it apparently ‘follows’ that it will be used effectively by receivers of that information.
But study after study, some notable work being that of Paul Strassman (a leading analyst of the cost-effectiveness of IT Systems) and Richard Saul Wurman (who coined the term Information Anxiety and defined it as the black hole between data and knowledge) have shown this is not necessarily true. More information does not lead to better understanding and more ‘informed’ action.
7.0 Ensuring cognitive access: why it is critical to our future…
Physical access to information, like access to roads, is a necessary physical infrastructure that must be laid as a foundation for man’s progress. But the real challenge before mankind will be in creating universal access to understanding – cognitive access – enabling the common man to fruitfully and meaningfully use information in a manner that will result in tangible improvements in the way he works and the way he lives.
8.0 Creating cognitive access is not an easy terrain to cross. Assimilating information depends upon the users ability to understand; the context for the information; and the link between the new information and the existing knowledge base already in the head. Creating cognitive access is clearly an individual – centric, difficult to measure, complex concept. It is related to creating the optimal conditions for users to understand and assimilate knowledge easily.
Correspondingly, creating universal cognitive access, i.e. creating optimal conditions for the easy and effective use of available knowledge by all those who receive it is the key challenge intrinsic to the goal of creating universal access to knowledge.
9.0 If we are to be content with allowing each individual to gain cognitive access based only on his or her individual capability then we are opening the doorway to a problem that has already ravaged this country once and has the capacity to destroy it again: the understanding divide – which creates a knowledge rich ruling class that control access to the very source of all progress; only this time it will not be physical access to information but access to the benefits of that information.
As more and more information is made available as a result of fiber optic highways and the widespread availability of communication infrastructure, we will see the contours of the understanding divide become clearer.
Those who understand will benefit immensely from the investments we are making in information and its availability. Those who don’t will be left further behind than they were before.