Feb 142007

Back in 1968, Peter F. Drucker in The Age of Discontinuity [New York, Harper and Row] invented the term “the knowledge economy” to describe where he saw American society heading. By this he meant that more and more people were making use, not of knowledge simply, which everyone has always used, but rather that kind of knowledge that can be systematically acquired through taking college and university courses, as well as possibly by further specialized training beyond that. How do we understand all this in terms of attention?

Suppose you are taking a college course, and, either because you find yourself paying direct attention to the professor, or because you are interested in a good grade, you try to incorporate the material of the class in your mind. That means you must adopt a certain set of views, a certain way of thinking, a certain way of seeing the world. It is the way your professor and the authors of the books you might read for the class all more or less share, and you will succeed in the class to the extent you can demonstrate your ability to think this way on tests. You are learning part of what is generally known as a discipline, be it a particular science — say, astronomy — or some more applied field — say, advertising— or a humanity — say, English literature. Each of these broad approaches lead to very different kinds of integrated alignment with not just one or two professors but with what many or most people in the field will share as a common outlook.

Thus through the systematic paying attention of having a certain major in college and perhaps also in graduate school, one ends up with a mind much aligned with typical professors in the field, and maybe very much more closely with one or two special mentors or stars that have garnered one’s special attention either in person or via some medium.

As one then continued at that time in what was known as “the world of work” one kept on paying attention to the world according to one’s prior mental alignment with those who make up that discipline. One also received some attention just by dint of being a member of that discipline. This was added to whenever one put forward one’s own thoughts in any form that helped align still others to that discipline, as well as, to some degree, one’s personal take on it.

For one’s knowledge to be “of use” one had to make this pattern of mind a means by which to get at least some attention. Taking that alignment and carrying it further in some particular direction, was a way of extending the influence of one’s teachers, mentors and stars, as well possibly of oneself.

To a considerable extent the knowledge economy formulation was always more an ideal than reality. One gained success and prominence not simply by knowledge of a sharply defined discipline but by one’s own attention getting powers, whatever their source. By now, in many cases, the disciplinary matrix has eroded considerably and the formal ties between university courses and success in them, between typical professors as disciplinary guardians and success in the outer world have been weakened. New ways of establishing looser alignments between people, implying unified styles of thinking and ways of evaluating the world are in formation. These ways have more directly to do with alignment in the moment with a host of others with a variety of thought processes, rather than through a carefully studied and coherent underpinning of prior knowledge.

Today of course, university students are also students of the Internet and a host of stars and performers reached through it. Most likely they are also themselves performers in it. Even in the 60’s and earlier, students were connected with a larger culture, but that is more true now. My sense is that disciplines as such have more trouble maintaining —well — discipline. Each student is likely to have an assortment of stars different quite from any other, and so develop a more heterogeneous and idiosyncratic set of alignments that then get put to use in more varied ways. Those who succeed in the emerging attention economy, even when the measure of success is old-fashioned monetary wealth —and even more if it is in terms of attention itself — do so far more through personal ties, personal attention getting strategies and other ways of acting not tied to disciplines.

Thus, the so-called knowledge economy — always something of a misnomer— is even more that today. (By the way these reflections have a lot of bearing on how to read Alan Liu’s interesting but overly dogmatic Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information [Chicago, 2004].)

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