The fragility of the knowledge society

I don’t really believe that we live in a “knowledge society.”

Technocrats say we live in a knowledge society. Educators and politicians sometimes say we live in a knowledge society. Sometimes they’re trying to say: a world where formal knowledge from the education and research sector is crucial to social success, economic production, and the like. OK, education is a means of getting jobs, and a marker of social distinction. Scientific research is sometimes very politically involved (paradigmatically, the Manhattan Project). None of that seems to add up to a social order where “knowledge” is the foremost concern, mightiest tool and dominant value.

Sociologists keep fantasizing that they have the power and insight to rename society. They invent terms: knowledge society, information society, postindustrial society, postmodernity. Nico Stehr, in his 1994 book Knowledge Societies, tries to persuade us that the knowledge society denotes a society based on “knowledge,” rather than on “labor” or “property.” Here’s his list of the changes that, collectively, signal the knowledge society’s emergence:

  • the penetration of most spheres of social action, including production, by scientific knowledge (‘scientization’).
  • the displacement, though by no means the elimination, of other forms of knowledge by scientific knowledge, mediated by the growing stratum of and dependence on experts, advisors and counselors, and the corresponding institutions based on the deployment of specialized knowledge.
  • the emergence of science as an immediately productive force.
  • the differentiation of new forms of political action (e.g., science and educational policy).
  • the development of a new sector of production (the production of knowledge).
  • the change of power structures (technocracy debate).
  • the emergence of knowledge as the basis for social inequality and social solidarity.
  • the trend to base authority on expertise.
  • the shift in the nature of the societal conflict from struggles about the allocation of income and divisions in property relations to claims and conflicts about generalized human needs.

I find the last of these rather opaque, and it seems unclear whether all of these really are global trends. Is there really a growing tendency to base authority on expertise, for instance? Are most spheres of social action truly “penetrated” by scientific knowledge? That is not clear. And there is a tendency in Stehr to treat “science” and “knowledge” as the independent forces reshaping other social formations, with insufficient consideration of the ways that “science” and “knowledge” (by which Stehr really means socially legitimated, primarily academic knowledge) are themselves dependent variables, products of political and historical circumstance.

What Stehr does say about knowledge is suggestive but vague. He hesitates between analyzing knowledge as an “anthropological constant” of any possible society (since all social action depends on some kind of knowledge), and as a historically specific value and force of production. He also seems to be suggesting that knowledge constitutes a new and thickening form of mediation between human individuals and world:

…knowing is a relation to things and facts, but also to laws and rules. In any case, knowing is some sort of participation: knowing things, facts, rules, is “appropriating” them in some manner, including them into our field of orientation and competence. A very important point, however, is that knowledge can be objectified, that is, the intellectual appropriation of things, facts and rules can be established symbolically, so that in the future in order to know, it is no longer necessary to get into contact with the things themselves but only with their symbolic representations. This is the social significance of language, writing, printing and data storage. Modern societies have made dramatic advances in the intellectual appropriation of nature and society. There is an immense stock of objectified knowledge which mediates our relation to nature and to ourselves. In a general sense, this advancement has been called, in other contexts, modernization or rationalization. This secondary nature is overgrowing the primary nature of humans. The real and the fictional merge and become indistinguishable; theories become facts and not vice versa, that is, facts do not police theories. (13)

There are two thoughts happening here. First, Stehr wants to establish that knowing is social, not in the strong constructionist sense that all objects of knowledge are social constructs, but in the weaker sense that all knowledge entails not just a relation to a known object, but also to a procedure for knowing, a set of “laws and rules.” Then he wants to suggest that knowledge gets disconnected from knowing subjects, that knowledge doesn’t require a knower because it circulates on its own as the “symbolic representation” that is the product of some prior act of knowing. Such a large mass of objectified knowledge is now circulating, Stehr thinks, that our relation to our worlds is permanently mediated through this traffic in social representations. As if we are all even more alienated from the world by knowing too much. When Stehr says that “the real and the fictional merge,” I don’t think he means that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction; I think he means that the world itself is now increasingly re-organized around the “fictions” of scientific knowledge.

Pending a different order of evidence than Stehr offers, I am inclined to reject the claim that contemporary society, however one wants to label it, is really very unique in having an epistemically mediated world. Surely the Azande lived in a no less symbolically constituted space. But Stehr, importantly, is not simply applauding the new social order that he thinks we live in. Rather, he believes that the “knowledge society” is uniquely precarious:

Although much effort has been invested in the reduction of the contingencies of economic affairs and in the improvement of the possibilities of planning and forecasting, the economy of the knowledge society is, as much as the rest of global society, increasingly subjected to a rise in indeterminacy. While success may at times justify the high hopes of many that techniques and technologies will be developed to reduce if not eliminate much of the uncertainty from economic conduct, sudden and unexpected events almost invariably disconfirm, almost cruelly, such optimistic forecasts about the possibility of anticipating and therefore controlling future events. As a matter of fact, and paradoxically, one of the sources of the growing indeterminacy can be linked directly to the nature of the technological developments designed to achieve greater certainty. The new technology contributes to and accelerates the malleability of specific contexts because of its lower dedication (limitation) to particular functions. Technological developments add to the fragility of economic markets and the need of organizations operating in such a context to become more flexible in order to respond to greater mutability in demand and supply. In the sphere of production, as a result, a new utopian vision arises, a vision which Charles Sabel (1991:24) sketches in the following and deliberating enabling terms:

“Universal materializing machines replace product-specific capital goods; small and effortlessly re-combinable units of production replace the hierarchies of the mass-production corporation; and the exercise of autonomy required by both the machines and the new organizations produces a new model producer which view of life confounds the distinction between the entrepreneurial manager and the socialist worker-owner.”

Much of the standard discussion of these matters, at least until recently, has been animated by opposite expectations. Bell (1973:26), for example, confidently asserts that the ‘development of new forecasting and ‘mapping’ techniques makes possible a novel phase in economic history – the conscious, planned advance of technological change, and therefore the reduction of indeterminacy about the economic future.’

But the factor of greater fragility, malleability and volatility is not confined to the economy, the labor market and the social organization of work and management, nor does it merely have ‘positive’ effects on social relations and individual psyches. Greater vulnerability corresponds to greater fragility and greater flexibility is linked to new regimes of production. (158)

This is interesting because it suggests that a newly precarious world is not only the product of a new capitalist labor regime but also the product of a new epistemic and technical regime of disorientation, in which technology designed to be malleable ends up being unstable. As if the “knowledge society” had a structurally unstable future. Of course, dialectically speaking, what society doesn’t have a structurally unstable future? But the question remains: even if “knowledge society” is the wrong name, what contradictions structure the futures of contemporary Euroamerican social orders?

There’s something maddeningly abstract about Stehr’s book. We don’t learn what it is like to know something, we don’t see case studies of knowledge entangled in the social world, we don’t see cross-cultural comparison, we don’t see experiential detail. It’s hard to comment on the book, even, without getting caught in its abstract morass. But one wonders: perhaps the abstract, scholastic, combative, polysyllabic, skeptical convolution that one feels in reading Stehr’s prose is precisely what life in the knowledge society is like? Does Stehr’s book perform what it describes? If so, all the more reason to shun the knowledge-based social order he articulates.