Editorial: The Knowledge Wave

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 21, Spring 2001

At the end of the day, was the much touted ‘Catching the Knowledge Wave’ conference held in Auckland last month much more than a tax-funded $750 000 fizz?

Organisers presented three core themes: Innovation and Creativity – bringing it all together; People and Capability – increasing knowledge for all; and thirdly, Social Cohesion and the Knowledge Divide – improving the quality of life.

To the casual observer they all seem very important things to consider. But we need to read beyond the print to see not so much of what is said in these titles, but what is not said.

There were at least four major areas that needed to be addressed if this was not to be yet another feel good seminar that bypassed important topics. Firstly, how would new knowledge protect and enhance the common good? Would the centrality of developing a holistic spirituality to sustain good living be addressed? In a society which marginalises experience and the elderly, what place would wisdom have in the new order? Finally, with mother nature posting warning signs everywhere, how could we better protect our fragile environment and practise sustainable levels of consumption so that everyone has a fruitful place on God’s earth?

The fact is that none of these issues were specifically addressed. Such omissions raise serious questions.We do well to pause and ask basic questions about this latest new dogma, the knowledge economy. Like many modern concepts, it is being presented as a new way to salvation. But fundamental to any acceptance of such a slogan are such questions as, who is presenting it? For whom is it being presented? Who will benefit? Does better knowledge for all mean a better life for all? Have we the wisdom required to actually use new knowledge well?

Information is one thing. But knowledge implies truth based on wisdom. Who is drawing a distinction between new information and new knowledge? Where is the debate regarding underpinning values for its use for peoples’ benefit? Is ‘the marketplace’, where the bottom line criterion is the profit margin, the place to decide such matters? The conference seemed to signal a ‘yes’ answer. But I wonder.

We are running huge risks in presuming to build the future without wider public debate on what values we want that future built upon and how we are going to live in that future. These are questions of philosophy, theology and spirituality which I do not see being addressed adequately anywhere. They seem to have been pointedly ignored at the conference.

They are not new questions. But they are important questions that are generally shut out of mainstream discussions by a dominant consumer culture which has found no place for such queries to be asked, much less answered. Already, we are paying a huge price for such ignorance. For future generations, the cost will be much higher.

From that perspective, the conference does seem to have been an expensive ‘feel good’ exercise that through lack of vision and poor planning missed tackling some of the most fundamental questions. That was a pity.

—Jim Consedine

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