Thursday, June 14, 2007

Restrictions on Knowledge

Years ago, an anarchist coworker of mine decried public libraries as organizations whose main purpose was stealing. His argument was that writers, producers, and others should be paid every time someone uses their book, tape, or movie; and by buying one copy and distributing it for free to people, libraries were cheating the creators of these works.

I was reminded of this exchange as I read Al Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason, and reflected on my own research into the role of accurate knowledge in the success of individuals in a population. Setting aside the supreme snobbery in the notions that everything should be owned and that those with the most money should have most of the control in society, it strikes me as inherently dangerous for any population (especially a democratic republic like ours) to have information in particular strictly controlled by a few people and dispensed to only those who can afford it.

The danger from restricted information (and through lack of education in critical thinking, the restriction of knowledge) lies in the inability of any small group to effectively process and use that information to handle the great complexities of the world. First, they can’t be in many places at once, so their data and control points are fundamentally limited. Second, they do not have the personal processing power to handle the information they do get. As a result, even if their motives are pure, they will be incapable of exercising their power reliably and without great risk. The obvious way to deal with these problems is to distribute control and knowledge throughout a large, spread out population. A good analogy is the human body (or any biological organism), where the brain, itself a distributed system, does not micromanage the activities of each of the body’s cells, but rather serves as a facilitator or coordinator of activity. Groups of cells that take too much control are usually perceived as diseases (such as cancer) that threaten the entire organism.

Anarchy, the excessive distribution of power to every individual, has its own problems. Survival is far more enhanced by cooperation to deal with aspects of the environment that cannot be managed effectively by individuals alone. Such aspects involve large threats, difficult to retrieve resources, and the general erosion of uniqueness associated with entropy.

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