Sunday, July 24, 2005

Knowledge is Power

...said Bacon. He was thinking of Man confronting Nature. In the context of Man confronting Man, however, the saying should be "Unshared Knowledge is Power."

"All men by nature desire to know," said Aristotle. Following that up, Senator Bob Graham says (with the help of Jeff Nussbaum), "If there's one thing I've realized in my time serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, it is that people like possessing information that is secret. They like not disclosing information to others." (Intelligence Matters, p. 35.)

There is nothing sinister or even unusual about unshared knowledge as such. Not even all mathematicians can share all mathematics with each other, much less with non-mathematicians. You can never share everything about yourself with another person, no matter how much time the two of you spend. Two people witnessing the same event do not share precisely the same knowledge of it, simply because they must be standing in different places. There are natural limits to the shareability of knowledge.

Nor is the limitation of shareability in itself a bad thing. Some knowledge shouldn't be shared, as privacy advocates point out, and sharing some knowledge is a matter of discretion. That is why we have blinds on windows. That is why we expect professionals such as doctors, lawyers, clergy, social workers, journalists, accountants and others to "maintain confidentiality." Perhaps that is part of the reason why not all information is to be disclosed to jurors; some information, indeed, must be kept from them, because they cannot be trusted to know how to handle it.

Nor is the shareability of knowledge just between individuals. There are different strata, within which some knowledge circulates freely, but not outside. Workers on the line know things that the CEO doesn't, and management knows things they don't. Magicians tend to be a tight-lipped fraternity, as do Masons, Mormons and Mafiosi. There are things the administration doesn't tell the faculty. There are things the faculty doesn't let on to the students, and there are things the students don't tell the faculty.

And there are things about you that everybody knows but you.

Of course, there are whistleblowers, snitches, spies and turncoats, who tell things to people they are generally expected not to, for many reasons. Bait and switch, the car salesman's checking with the manager to see if he'll OK the deal, and many other sales techniques are now "open secrets;" apparently, some people still don't know them. (Some people really were born yesterday, and tomorrow that will come true again.) All of which merely goes to show that it is a matter of common expectation in society that some information will be available to some people and not to others. The withholding of information is ubiquitous, and is recognized, if perhaps unconsciously, as a customary and legitimate exercise of power.

If knowing were an a priori matter, something that took no effort and was accomplished instantaneously, Aristotle might be right. But coming to know does take some doing. As Ian Hacking says, "One thing main-line bacteriologists do not want to hear about is sedimentary petrology! It will take quite a few voices to get them to listen." (The Social Construction of What?, p. 204.)

Another thing that might cast doubt on Aristotle's saying, and on its being accepted as a truism, is another candidate for truistic status: Cardinal Caraffa's saying, to his uncle Pope Paul IV: "Populus vult decipi. Decipiatur," ["The people wish to be deceived. Let them be deceived." He spoke Latin, you see.] which calls attention to the fact that some truths are unpleasant, at least compared with some pleasant untruths, and that people might very well prefer the latter to the former.

Isn't it becoming clear that "knowledge" by itself may be just too broad a concept to be useful here?

First come I; my name is Jowett.
There's no knowledge but I know it.
I am the Master of this college.
What I know not is not knowledge.

Have you ever heard, or used, the phrase, "How should I know?" Of course you have; and its very familiarity can be considered a form of legitimacy. Shouldn't we take a cue from Jowett's ventriloquist here and simply specify that some knowledge is too unimportant, or too spatio-temporally confined, to deserve the title? If we do, what's left? What knowledge is important enough to be called knowledge?

What's important for us here is knowledge of a very specific kind---knowledge of the actions of men, when those actions affect you---knowledge of the kind Senator Graham was talking about.

In an ideally efficient market, there is no such thing as insider trading because everyone has equal access to relevant information, i.e., natural limitations on the shareability of knowledge are ignored. (In practice, insider trading is subject to regulation.) In a so-called "democracy" the actions of government must be shared or shareable in order for the institution of voting to mean anything. How a democracy can contain an intelligence apparatus explicitly devoted to keeping government actions secret has been the subject of anguished deliberation in certain quarters for a long time.

What is not a subject for deliberation is the fact that the present Bush administration is by far the most secret and hermetically closed administration ever to occupy the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. continues to call itself a democracy, when in fact it is a National Security State. Anything the people do not "need to know" is not told them.

Something Jowett really did say is: "Doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door."

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