In a brilliant book “Revolutionary Wealth”, the authors, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, write about “obsoledge”. Schumpeter wrote about creative destruction of industries, but today’s economy is about the obsoledge of knowledge.
“Thinking matters. But many of the facts we think about are false. And much of what we believe is almost certainly stupid.
Despite the floods of data, information and knowledge crashing over us today, a greater and greater percentage of what we know is, in fact, less and less true. And this, as we'll see, would be the case even if we could believe the media, even if every advertiser were truthful, every lawyer honest, every politician sealed his lips, every adulterer confessed and every fast-talking telemarketer went straight.
If this is the case, how should individuals-or, for that matter, companies or countries-turn the deep fundamental of knowledge into wealth?
Some knowledge has always been needed to produce wealth. Hunter-gatherers had to know the migratory patterns of the animals they pursued. Peasants came to know a lot about soil. Normally, however, once learned the same knowledge remained useful generation after generation. Factory workers had to know how to operate their machines quickly and safely for as long as they had the job.
Today work-relevant knowledge changes so rapidly that more and more new knowledge has to be learned both on and off the job. Learning becomes a continuous-flow process. But we can't learn everything fast enough. And that helps explain why, if some of what we think is stupid, there's no need to be embarrassed. We are not alone in believing stupidities.
The reason is that every chunk of knowledge has a limited shelf life. At some point it becomes obsolete knowledge-what might more appropriately be called "obsoledge."
Does Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Poetics constitute "knowledge"? Or the ideas of Confucius or Kant? We can, of course, describe their ideas as wisdom. But the wisdom of these authors or philosophers was based on what they knew-their own knowledge base-and much of what they knew was, in fact, false.
Aristotle, whose views held sway across Europe for almost two thousand years, believed that eels were asexual and "originated in . . . the entrails of the earth." He also believed that the Indian Ocean was a landlocked sea-a geographical error that was still shared centuries later by Ptolemy and other European and Islamic scholars.
In the third century AD, Porphyry, the biographer of Pythagoras, assured his readers that if you took a part of a bean plant, put it into an earthenware pot, buried it for three months, then dug it up, you would surely find either the head of a child or female genitalia.
In the seventh century, Saint Isadore of Seville assured contemporaries that "bees are generated from decomposed veal." Half a millennium later no less a genius than Leonardo da Vinci declared that beavers knew their testicles were being used by humans for medicinal purposes. When trapped, he asserted, a beaver bites them off "and leaves them to its enemies."
When tomatoes, native to South America, first reached Europe in the sixteenth century, perfectly intelligent people knew that they were toxic to humans. It was two hundred years before Linnaeus declared otherwise. And as late as 1820 a particularly daring fellow attracted a large crowd when he risked eating two tomatoes to prove Linnaeus was right.
But obsoledge is not always amusing. As late as 1892 it was common knowledge-and scientifically accepted since the time of Galileo-that the planet Jupiter had four satellites. That knowledge became obsolete, however, on September 9 of that year, when astronomer E. E. Barnard of the Lick Observatory discovered a fifth moon. By 2003, astronomers had counted sixty.
Similarly, scientists for decades had assumed that there were only nine planets in our solar system. However, in 2005, a California Institute of Technology astronomer discovered an object he named Xena, which he and other scientists believe may be a tenth planet orbiting our sun.
Then there was London physiologist L. Erskine Hill, who reported in 1912 that experimental evidence showed that "purity of air is of no importance," How many more people around the world would have died of pollution related causes if, over the last few decades, we hadn't learned otherwise? And how many patients will die today because somewhere an otherwise intelligent doctor is relying on outdated "facts" learned years ago in medical school? How many companies will go belly-up because of a marketing strategy based on yesterday's fad? How many investments are doomed because of out-of-date financial data? And what about tomorrow's deaths or disasters just waiting to happen?
Look, for example, at the minutes of the September 2002 meeting of the Advisory Committee of CERN users. (CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research.) Tucked away among references to decisions about providing ashtrays "close to the outside doors of major buildings for smokers" and notification of "changes in mail delivery service" is the following item: ''The names of persons to be contacted in case of accident should be restored in the Human Resource database."
Why on earth, one might ask, should the list of persons to be contacted in case of a nuclear accident be missing? The answer: Because "for the majority of people the information became obsolete" and the administration "did not have the resources to ensure systematic updating." It took the chairman of the users' group to point out that "the potential human cost in case of a serious accident is immense, and a solution should be found."
What is clear is that wherever knowledge is stored, whether in digital databases or inside our brains, there is the equivalent of Aunt Emily's attic overstuffed with obsoledge-facts, ideas, theories, images and insights that have been outrun by change or replaced by later, presumably more accurate, truths. Obsoledge is a big part of the knowledge base of every person, business, institution and society.
By accelerating change, we also speed up the rate at which knowledge becomes obsoledge. Unless constantly and ruthlessly updated, experience on the job becomes less valuable. Databases are out of date by the time we finish building them. So, too, are books (including this one) by the time they are published. With every passing semi-second, the accuracy of our knowledge about our investments, our markets, our competition, our technology and our customers' needs diminishes. As a result, whether they are aware of it or not, companies, governments and individuals today base more of their daily decisions on obsoledge-on ideas and assumptions that have been falsified by change- than ever before.
Occasionally, of course, some antique bit of obsoledge comes back to life, as it were, and proves useful today because the context around it has changed and given it powerful new meaning. But more often the reverse is true.
Ironically, in advanced economies, companies brag about "knowledge management," "knowledge assets" and "intellectual property." Yet with all the numbers crunched by financial quants, economists, companies and governments, no one knows what obsoledge costs us in the form of degraded decision-making. What, one might ask, is the drag placed on individual investments, corporate profits, economic development, poverty-reduction programs and wealth creation in general?
Beneath all this, moreover, lies an even more important, hidden epistemological change. It affects not merely what we regard as knowledge but the tools we use to acquire it. Among these instruments of thought, few are remotely as important as analogy, in which we identify similarities in two or more phenomena and then draw conclusions from one to apply to the other.
Humans can barely think or talk without making analogies. The Irish golfer Padraig Harrington tells a sports reporter that "A U.S. Open is one that really tests your ability to hit. . . . you sort of want to be like a machine." Which takes us back to the followers of Newton who said the entire cosmos was "like" a machine.
Then there are all the people described as having "a mind like a computer," or who "sleep like a baby," or who are told to invest "like a pro" or think "like a genius." Implicit analogies are built into language itself. Thus we still rate cars in terms of their "horsepower"-a leftover from the day when they were seen as analogs of horse-drawn coaches and were known as "horseless carriages."
But the thought-tool we call analogy is growing harder to use. Analogies, always tricky, are growing trickier. For as the world changes, old similarities can turn into dissimilarities. Once-legitimate comparisons become strained. As parallels with the past break down, often unnoticed, conclusions based on them become misleading. And the faster the rate of change, the shorter the useful life span of analogies.
In this way, a change in one deep fundamental-time-affects a basic tool we use in the pursuit of another-knowledge.
In sum, then, as we've seen, even among experts on the knowledge economy, few have thought much about what might be called the law of obsoledge: As change accelerates, so does the speed at which still more obsoledge accumulates. All of us carry with us a far bigger burden of obsolete knowledge than our ancestors did in the slower-moving societies of yesterday.
And that is why so many of our most cherished ideas will set our descendants roaring with laughter.”