Francis Bacon is said to have coined the phrase “knowledge is power,” though it doesn’t appear in any of his writings. Thomas Hobbes used the phrase in the mid-1600s, and Thomas Jefferson employed it on several occasions 150 years later. But there’s evidence that it may be 1000 years older than that. By the time I first heard it from Schoolhouse Rock, it had been around the block a few times.
The idea is simple: people who know things can use that information to make better decisions and shape their circumstance. Think of how valuable Grays Sports Almanac is to Biff in Back to the Future Part II. Having knowledge makes the difference between a millionaire casino owner and a guy who washes cars for a living.
That was the justification for going to school for a long time. Knowledge will help us get ahead in the world. Knowledge can mean the difference between subsistence and luxury. We need knowledge. And where do we get it? We get it from books. We get it from schools. We get it from teachers. Work hard. Get good grades. Gather knowledge. Live a good life.
That’s one of the reasons why the printing press was so important to the development of western civilization. It made it much easier to share and disseminate information. Sharing information spread the power out. Even in the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock reminded us that we lived in a world where information is scarce. Gather it. Collect it. Imprint it on your mind. It will serve you well. Knowledge is power.
In 1884, the Washington Monument was completed. To top it off, they wanted something grand, something spectacular, something rare. So they commissioned the largest cast piece of aluminum ever made. It was nine inches high and weighed about six pounds. At the time, aluminum was about as valuable as silver. A hundred years later, aluminum was the cheapest of metals, used for sandwich wrappers and containing cheap beer that wasn’t worth putting into bottles. The 20th century was hard on traditions.
The Internet changed everything. In many ways, the development of the Internet was more transformative than that of the printing press. The means of publication were given to everyone. The fact that I can write this sentence using technology no more complicated than an email program, and click a button to make it available to the whole world in perpetuity is a game changer. When I finish this post, my words will go out into the ether. There’s no editor. There’s no process for determining if it’s worth publishing. There are no economic considerations. There aren’t any fact checkers. It’s just out there.
And you could do that too. And so could the other 4 billion people who are on the Internet. Many of them do. They may not have web sites or blogs or fancy publications, but they have social media tools, and they can easily share pictures and stories and wonderful combinations of observations and commentary and righteous indignation. Or, if they prefer, they can have Youtube channels or podcasts. It’s easy to share ideas with the world now.
Even the more-or-less traditional media has opened up. Throughout most of the 20th century, there were limited broadcast options. There were a few major TV and radio networks. Most major cities had a newspaper. Some had two. Getting access to these broadcast systems was a major challenge. But with hundreds of cable channels, a dozen or more streaming platforms and online “news” platforms catering to every preference, there’s a lot more room for diverse voices.
Diverse voices are good. They’re democratic. In a world where the majority rules, it’s important to have minority voice. It’s important to have dissenting opinions. Disagreement is a good thing.
But as a consumer of information, you have choices to make. You choose what to watch, and what to read. You decide who to pay attention to and who to ignore. When you want to watch video in your home, you have millions of choices, not three. When you want to read about what’s happening in the world, you have millions of choices, not a single newspaper and a handful of news magazines. All of those information sources need one thing to survive: attention.
You choose which videos to watch, which social networks to engage in, which people to follow. You decide if you’re going to rely on Breitbart or Mother Jones for your “news,” of if the Associated Press is more your style. You choose who to follow on Twitter, or if Twitter is even worth your time. You give audience to the voices. You give oxygen to the fire.
The power isn’t in the knowledge anymore. The knowledge is everywhere. It’s so common that it’s laying by the side of the road with the sandwich wrappers and beer cans. The power is in attention. You are defined by how you spend your attention. You decide who is worth spending that attention on.
Image source: Ph.