Knowledge is important, and we must cultivate a love for it.
Anything in excess is bad. But, would you ever consider that our current fixation with knowledge, science, and technology is a bad thing? Saying something like this, right at the peak of the information age, through phrases like “curiosity killed the cat” or “ignorance is bliss” is undoubtedly reserved for tongue-in-cheek remarks. Yet we are currently dealing with the effects of said knowledge through things like misinformation and disinformation, the commodification of personal data, and even the environmental cost of running the internet, a globally interconnected machine that never sleeps.
Our conversations about post-growth consumption cannot be complete without exploring our current relationship with knowledge and its applications — that is, how we view knowledge, desire it, and use it to conquer the material world. This relationship is not readily apparent due to the sense of awe towards knowledge instilled into our societies by the Enlightenment and the benefits expected by its application in our time — even when it comes to solving problems that were created by previous embodiments of this knowledge through polluting and unsafe technology.
Yet our relationship with science and knowledge has moved from one fueled by curiosity and love of knowledge itself, to one motivated by the opportunities to exploit the world, and to gain wealth and power; or as C. S. Lewis noted, granting the powers of magic to science so that we can ultimately exploit nature at a whim. We shifted from the picture painted by Isaac Newton comparing the human experience of scientific curiosity with a child who picks up seashells at the beach, to the grim reality of social media being a chained circus elephant that performs tricks for an audience that pays to see it.
With this in mind, how should we view knowledge within a post-growth mindset so that it remains congruent with our goals of limiting consumption and attaining sustainable and convivial societies?
This is a complex issue, but here are some things to consider.
A tool for equality and inequality
Misusing knowledge can lead to it being ineffective and sterile for true social flourishing. Examples of this are knowledge-based initiatives that address climate change, for example, technologies that gather or crunch data about the environment. We held discussions through the Open Climate collective during the pandemic on this subject, and it came to our attention that no knowledge would ever be useful if it lacked a definite purpose, especially if it is expected to benefit the communities most affected by environmental injustice and to support activists and professionals addressing the same problem from other fronts. We noted that, without a connection between the data we collect about the planet in the context of science and technology, and the actual narratives of individuals at the frontlines of climate change, all this work leads nowhere.
This lack of connection between the groups creating knowledge and the people who will use it mirrors the inequalities of technology transfer in the 1970s between developed and underdeveloped countries. Enrique Dussel (1979), alongside other Latin American academics and theologians, noticed these disparities as a feature used by more powerful stakeholders to create and maintain unfair advantages. In his words,
“more than an insufficient ‘transfer’ rhythm of technical progress, what we’ve seen is the appropriation of this progress to benefit the privileged sectors and hegemonic powers.”
At the same time, we insisted that an alternative view of progress through knowledge had to be analyzed beyond a false dichotomy of ‘more’ or ‘less’, but rather as in how it is distributed equitably across interested groups with a view on both human needs and our imminent planetary crisis. It’s not a coincidence that both also serve as the limits presented at the extremes of the Doughnut Economics framework. Actions in this regard include considering who has access to knowledge, and how it is presented to them. A great community within the open movement has dedicated lots of work over the past two decades to enabling the legal and technical elements behind access to knowledge, as well as the creation of resources that anyone can use to copy and remix. But we still need to leverage all these resources so they reach the right communities that will use them.
As an example, Appropedia recently collaborated with the Critical Making Programme and the Global Innovation Gathering by showing how to create more meaningful documentation for social impact. The premise was simple: we need to make this knowledge relevant and timely to the issues we want to address. A similar approach to contextualizing knowledge about innovations is being undertaken by the UNDP Accelerator Labs, establishing spaces for participation regarding how knowledge is being collected and used, and by giving all stakeholders control over it. This is a step in the right direction from such a large organization, even if it’s sadly not yet the norm.
A resource with material costs
When we talk about improving our societies’ consumption patterns, we often think of the things that we can see and touch, for example, the resources our societies extract to build products to then return as trash in a landfill. We seldom think of the intangible, like information and knowledge, as having a material embodiment. Thomas Jefferson famously said that “he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. […] ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe […].” Using the same analogy, living in a world where taper-making industries extract materials at an unsustainable rate, we can categorically state that this shared fire does have a material cost.
Similar considerations must be held in this information age. The internet is composed of physical devices that require minerals and other natural resources to be manufactured, as well as water and electricity to operate and connect to share data around the world. We must reckon with the idea that knowledge has a material cost and that we can have too much of it, especially regarding knowledge that is superfluous and unethical, like personal information, as well as expensive in terms of the resources required to operate, like bitcoin.
These discussions to find the right solutions are far from over. But the focus must not be made solely on crunching numbers to make a decision. We must explore these relationships between the material and the immaterial instead, and how post-growth values should apply to them. As we eliminate the distance between the physical and immaterial in creativity-based economies, we will be able to find ways to reduce environmental impacts at a global scale, given the reach of the internet.
Last year, for example, I embarked on months of discussion around these subjects as a Green Web Fellow, to explore these concepts and to create awareness of the seemingly distant but real impacts of knowledge work being offshored to countries like El Salvador. Another powerful instance of using the knowledge that connects the material and the immaterial is Doing the Doughnut Tech, a neat initiative co-founded by Hannah Smith and born out of the same fellowship, which applies Doughnut Economics to analyze the environmental impact of digital technologies. Please note that purpose-driven knowledge is an alternative to reducing the impact of capitalist knowledge economies in both examples.
A catalyst for social action
A known adage in the software development world says that when we solve a problem using a technical tool (such as regular expressions), we are creating two problems. This speaks to the challenge of enabling or avoiding the growing complexity that scientific and technical knowledge offers. We can take multiple positions around this issue that range from Luddism and rejection of technology to using technology to solve the problems created by technology (for example, creating a machine to clean the air being polluted by machines) to a technological determinism that chants phrases such as “progress is unavoidable.”
E. F. Schumacher also pointed out this conflict within the sciences: as we apply science to solve a problem, new problems are created. I believe that knowledge is crucial since both technology and science align with our relationship to knowledge. This is not to suggest that ignorance is a solution to any problems. Instead, a lack of purpose is detrimental to the knowledge we entertain and our scientific and technological endeavors. For instance, applying science was not the problem, according to Schumacher, but rather, it had a faulty purpose at the beginning. In his words, the problem to solve was the “direction of scientific knowledge.”
We expect knowledge economies to enable societal flourishing. In practice, societies thrive because things happen in the material world, so we expect knowledge to enable these positive changes. However, the age of data and infinite knowledge seems to be too much to handle and is making us feel permanently exhausted, perhaps because despite the promises of relieving our burden, it might create more work for us, as we are seeing in the case of AI.
Andrew Lamb once told me that “good knowledge takes time.” This does not mean that we can’t produce and share knowledge by using technology at a faster rate, but that purposeful, collaborative, and just applications of knowledge require doing the unavoidable hard work. According to Tim Ingold, it should be impossible in practice to observe without being transformed by the world, and human transformation should come without shortcuts. This is why Paulo Freire’s legacy is becoming relevant again; concepts like “participatory,” “critical,” and “pluriversal” are making their way into many current discussions in academia and other areas of practice because we recognize the need to be transformed by what we want to change around us.
It makes sense that we must regain the sensitivity we’ve lost to the information firehose to make sense of what we now know. In the words of Ingold, instead of focusing on knowing more, we pay attention. This might mean learning slowly, and it also means learning together.
A tool shaped by wisdom
Schumacher faced the question of scale — how much should our societies grow — by appealing to a quasi-spiritual human characteristic: “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of Wisdom.” We can put it this way: how can we regain attention to what is important and worth our time to achieve a sustainable and just future? In this information age, our relationship to knowledge and, therefore, how we view technology and science, must change. But most importantly, we must pay attention to the way that we value it in relation to other individuals and nature, and become more wise in the process.
Making community diagnostics through games & electronics inside a “transparent box” to gather information, and how the results were showed to the community.
A few years ago, while performing some data-collection and technology-building workshops at some communities in San Salvador, a woman told us that their community was accustomed to having people from all sorts of organizations gather information about social violence and natural disasters, to never return. So they were okay with not entirely making sense of our work, but they would still contribute whatever we needed. At the end of the activity, Kako Valladares, a good colleague and friend asked our team: “We can’t let this happen. Can you come up with something?”
Prompted by this, we created a series of card games to collect information and return it to them immediately. Displays of wisdom like Kako’s are not the same as the intellectual brilliance expected from a banking model of learning, which reproduces and optimizes knowledge. It is instead critical and reflective, and most importantly, it develops through conversations and participation.
I love my work in enabling people from all over the world to document and share their solutions to global problems. But I’ve realized a couple of things about the value of knowledge. First, no amount of knowledge about how to build more just and sustainable futures will transform our world in the direction we need to thrive if justice and sustainability aren’t part of the priorities and values of those who come across it. Second, knowledge without a personal connection cannot share these values and transform societies.
Knowledge from a post-growth mindset might diverge from our hunger to know, but it will create a better one: a hunger for meaning and purpose. That will truly transform our societies.
Teaser photo credit: The art of Diné weaving is part of the traditional knowledge of the Navajo people. By Terry Eiler – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16933812